Marijuana advocates won a major victory in federal court in October.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer

U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer lifted a temporary injunction that prevented a California medical marijuana dispensary from doing business. Critically, Breyer’s ruling applied a recent budget amendment passed by Congress, a law that bars federal agencies from targeting legal MMJ providers.

The injunction prohibited the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana and its founder, Lynette Shaw, from selling medical weed out of their Marin County dispensary. Breyer’s decision means Shaw may return to MMJ, but it also has wider implications for pot shops across the country.

Preventing federal interference

The law passed by Congress was intended to prevent the Department of Justice from “impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws.” Members who voted for it said they wanted to bar U.S. attorneys and the DOJ from going after providers. But officials at Justice quickly responded that the law doesn’t apply to the department because prosecutions don’t “impede” the legal business of medical marijuana.

Lawmakers shot back that the DOJ was brazenly violating the law, a view Breyer endorsed. The DOJ’s interpretation of the law “tortures the plain meaning of the statute,” he wrote.

“It defies language and logic for the Government to argue that it does not ‘prevent’ California from ‘implementing’ its medical marijuana laws by shutting down these same heavily-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries,” Breyer wrote. “And contrary to the Government’s representation, the record here does support a finding that Californians’ access to legal medical marijuana has been substantively impeded by the closing of dispensaries, and the closing of MAMM in particular.”

The effects of the ruling could be widespread. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently allow full medical cannabis, while another 17 permit limited medicinal use of a non-intoxicating marijuana oil. Four states and Washington, D.C., have also legalized weed for personal use.

A step forward for cannabis policy reform

Legal Marijuana Jar DispensaryMMJ activists hailed the decision as a milestone in pot policy reform.

“This is a big win for medical marijuana patients and their providers, and a significant victory in our efforts to end the federal government’s war on marijuana,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project. “Federal raids of legitimate medical marijuana businesses aren’t just stupid and wasteful, but also illegal.”

The problem has been especially acute in California, where a longtime U.S. attorney, Melinda Haag, made a career out of shuttering legitimate dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area. Shaw’s shop was one of many targeted by Haag, who resigned earlier this year.

Other cases remain on the docket. The Harborside Health Clinic of Oakland, which advertises itself as the biggest pot shop in the world, could still be closed, though Breyer’s ruling makes that less likely. Steve DeAngelo, who runs Harborside, has managed to rally an impressive coalition of neighbors and city leaders in opposition to Haag’s efforts, and that coalition was instrumental in enacting the law that protects MMJ.

“It’s great to see the judicial branch finally starting to hold the Justice Department accountable for its willful violation of Congress’s intent to end federal interference with state medical marijuana laws,”said Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority. “I hope the Obama administration takes this ruling to heart and makes sure DEA and federal prosecutors finally stop trying to stand between patients and their medicine.”


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