Q&A: Medicinal Marijuana. Still Illegal Under Federal Law

sentencing guidelinesThe current budget passed by Congress and signed by President Obama halts funding for the DEA to prosecute Medicinal Marijuana users and sellers in states where it is legal, but what does this mean in the overall landscape of legal reform?

There have been several headlines in major mainstream media outlets touting this as ‘virtually legalizing” medical marijuana, which is far from the truth.

The only thing the spending bill does is, not authorize funds that the DEA would use to investigate medical marijuana users and sellers in states that authorize it. It does not invalidate the Supremacy Clause, nor would it necessarily prohibit the DEA from investigating illegal drug activity under the guise of a legal MMJ business.

So there has been no significant change to the law itself?

None. It simply denies funds that the DEA would earmark, or specifically use, to target anyone otherwise operating in compliance with state MMJ law. It doesn’t change the law at all. All it does is tell the DEA that they will not receive any funding for actions to investigate anyone just because they are in violation with federal law.

Doesn’t this mean Congress is basically admitting it has medicinal value, thereby refuting the Schedule 1 Drug classification status?

It’s evidence of a shift, in terms of congressional support for legalization, but it’s not an explicit admission of medicinal value. This could change in nine months when Congress introduces the next spending bill. Remember the Obama administration has taken a very lax attitude towards marijuana law in general, but there’s no guarantee that trend will continue.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Federal government is not violating the Constitution in prosecuting MMJ cases—even in states where it’s legal.  Isn’t it still possible the DEA could act anyway– i.e.; the Commerce Clause?

Certainly the Commerce Clause in cases of MMJ sales—especially when crossing state lines, or even the Supremacy Clause, as long as federal law is what it is today. One must keep in mind, as far as the Federal government is concerned, everything CO, OR, WA, AL, DC and Guam, as well as the other medicinal states, is 100% illegal under federal law. Totally illegal.

In the Supreme Court ruling, the case involved someone growing a small number of plants for personal medicinal use. Is the reason it’s being sold relevant?

Absolutely – even if they allow the states to proceed with legalization experiments, they will quite likely act if it goes from state to state, in clear violation of not only the controlled substances act, but also federal jurisdiction pursuant to the Commerce Clause. Marijuana leaving the legal state and ending up in the illegal state is still a very big deal.

So although this signals a political shift, the war is far from over?

Far from over.

Marijuana remains federally regulated as a Schedule I prohibited substance. It remains Schedule I in PA as well. The efforts to defund the DEA are intended to protect citizens of medicinal marijuana from federal prosecution where they are otherwise in compliance with state law. Unfortunately we’ve seen numerous examples of the DEA acting aggressively in medicinal states.

Until Congress is ready to act on the matter of changing the classification of marijuana as a dangerous drug with no medicinal value, we’re likely to see further prosecutions, regardless of how they are funded.

Our concern at Pittsburgh NORML is this may cause members to relax their efforts here. Something we cannot afford to do if we want to see reform in the coming year. We have a new Governor who favors some form of decriminalization. We need to strike while the iron is hot.

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