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A Federal Court Just Delivered a Major Victory for Medical Marijuana

The ruling comes during a big moment in the drug’s road toward legalization.
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Legalization advocates, rejoice: You can no longer get busted by the Feds for growing and using medical marijuana.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the Department of Justice (DOJ) cannot spend money prosecuting federal cases involving the drug “if the defendants comply with state guidelines that permit the drug’s sale for medical purposes,” Reuters reports. The ruling stems from a budget appropriations rule passed by Congress in 2014 that prohibits the use of federal funds to circumvent state laws “that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

While 25 states currently permit the growth and use of medical marijuana (and five, including the District of Columbia, for recreational use), this ruling comes during a major moment in the drug’s road toward legalization. Last week, the Obama administration announced its intent to allow several universities to grow marijuana for scientific research. Expanding study into the health and medical effects, weed advocates hope, could help destigmatize the drug. Nine states, including California, are considering allowing recreational or medical marijuana consumption in ballot initiatives come November.

But the ruling also comes amid a setback for legalization advocates: Last week, the Drug Enforcement Agency declined to re-schedule marijuana under federal drug control laws from it’s Schedule I status, a designation that puts pot in the same legal category as dangerous narcotics like heroin and methamphetamines. “This decision isn’t based on danger,” DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg told the media at the time. “This decision is based on whether marijuana, as determined by the FDA, is a safe and effective medicine, and it’s not.”

You can no longer get busted by the Feds for growing and using medical marijuana.

The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals begs to differ, as evidenced by their unanimous ruling on 10 combined appeals to violations of the Controlled Substances Act. Writing for the court, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain argued that the prosecution of medical marijuana users is a state concern, and that, “by officially permitting certain conduct, state law provides for non-prosecution of individuals who engage in such conduct…. If the federal government prosecutes such individuals, it has prevented the state from giving practical effect to its law providing for non-prosecution of individuals who engage in the permitted conduct.”

This is a big deal. The largest federal circuit court in the country is essentially saying that federal prosecutors “cannot enforce the Controlled Substances Act against those in compliance with state medical marijuana provisions,” as University of Denver law professor Sam Kamintold the Huffington Post. “It’s not forever … but it’s a lot more protection than was in place prior to the ruling.”

As Slate notes, the DOJ had previously argued that, while the budget rider prevented federal funds from impeding a state medical marijuana sector, federal prosecutors could still go after individual growers and patients like the 10 defendants considered by the 9th Circuit Court. The court’s ruling effectively delineates and extends additional protections from federal prosecution to individuals who remain in strict compliance with state medical marijuana statutes (although these specific cases will end up in the lower courts to see if they were actually in compliance in the first place).

Those protections may be short-lived. As O’Scannlain observed in his opinion, Congress could simply drop the rider in a future session. “[The] DOJ is currently prohibited from spending funds from specific appropriations acts for prosecutions of those who complied with state law,” he wrote. “But Congress could appropriate funds for such prosecutions tomorrow.”

Still, the strengthening of protections for the medical marijuana sector combined with loosened restrictions for universities seeking to grow or purchase the drug for research purposes is a potent mix for the future of legalization. A robust medical marijuana sector means a lowered stigma for a population slowly coming around to legal pot, and more scientific research can help dispel the myths against marijuana that make up the logic underpinning the DEA and DOJ’s war on pot.

As I wrote last week, prohibitions (either explicit or due to the risk of prosecution) on medical marijuana research are epistemic roadblocks to legalization, a willful ignorance that allows lawmakers and law enforcement officials to fixate on the “reefer madness” myths surrounding marijuana. Less risk of federal prosecution isn’t just a sigh of relief for burgeoning state marijuana industries; it’s a small victory on the long slog toward legalization.