Supreme Court justices today declined to consider a 2014 suit challenging the legality of Colorado’s regulations permitting the state-licensed production and retail sale of cannabis to adults.
Justices decided in a 6-2 vote to reject the lawsuit, filed by Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt, which sought to strike down Colorado’s law on the basis that it is “fundamentally at odds” with the federal Controlled Substances Act. A majority of the Court turned back the petition in an unsigned opinion, while Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
The plaintiffs in the suit now say that they are contemplating filing a similar legal challenge in federal district court.
NORML Legal Counsel Keith Stroup previously described the lawsuit as “more political theater than a serious legal challenge.”
Update: The entire show can be watched here.
Premiering tonight on The History Channel at 9PM (eastern) is the new documentary ‘The Marijuana Revolution‘, which looks at the history of cannabis use in America, the forty-five year effort to reform prohibition laws, the dramatic increase in public support recently to finally re-legalize the herbal drug and the hundreds of companies already cultivating, infusing, testing, marketing and selling cannabis-related products.
Budgetary provisions enacted by Congress in 2014 forbid the Justice Department from taking action against medical marijuana providers who are operating in compliance with state law, a federal judge for the northern district of California determined earlier this week.
The ruling, issued by US District Court Judge Charles Breyer, rejects the Justice Department’s ‘tortured’ interpretation of the statute (Section 538 of the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015) and affirms that the “plain reading” of the law prohibits the federal government from spending funds in a manner that interferes with a state’s ability to authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana. Consequently, the statute forbids the federal government from taking actions that would result in the closure of state-compliant medical cannabis facilities, the Court opined.
Breyer ruled: “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 … dispensaries, whether one shuts down one, some, or all. … [C]ontrary to the Government’s representation, the record here does support a finding that Californian’s access to medical marijuana has been substantially impeded by the closing of dispensaries.”
He added: “[T]he legislative history of Section 538 points in only direction: away from the counter-intuitive and opportunistic meaning the DOJ seeks to ascribe to it now. … [T]he statutory language … is plain on its face [and] the Court must enforce it according to its terms.”
Breyer’s ruling removes an injunction that had forbidden the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana from operating. The injunction had been in effect since federal officials took action to close down the facility in 2011 as part of a statewide crackdown against dispensary operators.
Although Section 538 was included as part of a fiscal year 2015 spending bill, the language is expected to be renewed by Congress later this year as part of a FY 2016 appropriations measure.
Members of the Colorado Supreme Court have unanimously affirmed lower courts’ rulings that employers possess the authority to fire employees for their off-the-job use of marijuana. The Court found that the plant’s legal status under state law does not make the act of consuming cannabis “lawful” under the state’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute.
The Justices opined, “The supreme court holds that under the plain language of section 24-34-402.5, C.R.S. (2014), Colorado’s ‘lawful activities statute,’ the term ‘lawful’ refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law. Therefore, employees who engage in an activity such as medical marijuana use that is permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law are not protected by the statute.”
The ruling upholds the decision by Dish Network in 2010 to fire employee Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who used cannabis to treat muscle spasticity. Coats failed a random urine screen. Such tests identify the presence of the inert metabolite (byproduct) carboxy-THC, which may be present in urine for weeks or even months after one has ceased using the substance. Consequently, the Justice Department acknowledges, “A positive test result, even when confirmed, only indicates that a particular substance is present in the test subject’s body tissue. It does not indicate abuse or addiction; recency, frequency, or amount of use; or impairment.”
The Colorado decision mirrors those of courts in California, Oregon, and Washington — each of which similarly determined that state laws exempting marijuana consumers from criminal liability do not extend to civil protections in the workplace.
According to a study published last year in the Journal of Addictive Diseases, employees who test positive for carboxy-THC do not possess an elevated risk of workplace accident compared to employees who test negative.
Full text of the decision, Coats v. Dish Network, is here.
Judge Kimberly J. Mueller of the Federal District Court in Sacramento, California issued her oral ruling during a 15-minute court hearing today. Judge Mueller heard closing arguments in the case in early February but had postponed her decision on several occasions. Her written opinion is not yet available but is expected to be posted publicly by week’s end.
“At some point in time, a court may decide this status to be unconstitutional,” Judge Mueller said from the bench. “But this is not the court and not the time.”
Defense counsel intends to appeal the ruling.
In October, defense counsel and experts presented evidence over a five-day period arguing that the scientific literature is not supportive of the plant’s present categorization. Lawyers for the federal government countered that it is rational for the government to maintain the plant’s prohibitive status as long as there remains any dispute among experts in regard to its safety and efficacy. Defense counsel — attorneys Zenia Gilg and Heather Burke of the NORML Legal Committee — further contended that the federal law prohibiting Justice Department officials from interfering with the facilitation of the regulated distribution of cannabis in over 20 US states can not be reconciled with the government’s continued insistence that the plant is deserving of its Schedule I status under federal law.
Paul Armentano, NORML’s deputy director who served as the principal investigator for defense counsel in this case said: “We applaud Judge Mueller for having the courage to hear this issue and provide it the careful consideration it deserves. While we are disappointed with this ruling, it changes little. We always felt this had to ultimately be decided by the Ninth Circuit and we have an unprecedented record for the court to consider.
“In the interim, it is our hope that lawmakers move expeditiously to change public policy. Presently, bipartisan legislation is before the House and Senate to recognize cannabis’ therapeutic utility and to reschedule it accordingly and we encourage members of Congress to move forward expeditiously to enact this measure.”
In a brief filed with the court by the federal government, it contended: “Congress’ decision to treat marijuana as a controlled substance was and remains well within the broad range of permissible legislative choices. Defendants appear to argue that Congress was wrong or incorrectly weighed the evidence. Although they failed to prove even that much, it would be insufficient. Rational basis review does not permit the Court’s to ‘second guess’ Congress’ conclusions, but only to enjoin decisions that are totally irrational or without an ‘imaginable’ basis.”
They added: “Congress is not required to be ‘right,’ nor does it matter if the basis on which Congress made its decision turns out to be ‘wrong.’ All that is required is that Congress could rationally have believed that its action — banning the production and distribution of marijuana — would advance its indisputably legitimate interests in promoting public health and welfare. Because qualified experts disagree, it is not for the Courts to decide the issue and the statute must be upheld.”
Said Armentano, “The continued Schedule I classification of cannabis, in 2015, in self-evidently ridiculous. But unfortunately, the law may be ridiculous and still pass constitutional muster.”
He added, “The judge in this case missed a golden opportunity to demand that federal law comport with available science, public opinion, and common sense.”
Legal briefs in the case, United States v. Schweder, et. al., No. 2:11-CR-0449-KJM, are available online here.