In a resounding decision last week, the country’s largest federal court of appeals forbade the Justice Department from prosecuting people who comply fully with their states’ medical-marijuana laws. The court’s decision consolidated ten separate appeals from cases in Washington and California. The decision also applies in Oregon, Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Hawaii, and Arizona. It doesn’t apply in Idaho because Idaho has no such law.
The defendants’ appeals were based on a congressional spending bill that we wrote about eighteen months ago. That bill blocked the Justice Department from using any funding to interfere with medical-pot laws. It has since been extended through September 2016.
Based on the bill, each of the defendants had moved to dismiss their cases or restrain the government from further prosecuting them. But the trials courts denied them.
On appeal, the court agreed that Congress had spoken.
Thus the executive branch could not spend funds to prosecute the defendants if their conduct were permitted by their states’ laws and they complied fully with those laws. The executive could not spend funds on such cases because doing so would violate the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution, which commands that no money be paid out of the Treasury except by act of Congress. If the executive were spending money without authorization, it would violate the separation of powers. The defendants had standing to try to prevent it from doing so, and the courts were required to intervene.
Therefore, the court sent the defendants’ cases back to the trial courts with instructions that if the Justice Department insisted on prosecuting them, they were entitled to evidentiary hearings to determine whether they had complied with state law.
The court also warned, however, that “Congress could restore funding tomorrow, a year from now, or four years from now, and the government could then prosecute individuals who committed offenses while the government lacked funding. Moreover, a new president will be elected soon, and a new administration could shift enforcement priorities to place greater emphasis on prosecuting marijuana offenses.”
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