A new appellate ruling protects doctors from federal prosecution when they recommend medical marijuana in accordance with state law.

In an Aug. 16 opinion, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Department of Justice cannot spend funding to prosecute physicians and patients who allegedly violate federal drug laws if their actions comply with state medical cannabis statutes.

The decision supports the longstanding policies of several medical specialty societies.

“The conflict between state and federal law regarding medical marijuana can be concerning for patients and physicians who may consider using or recommending marijuana as a treatment option,” Hilary Daniel, senior health policy analyst for the American College of Physicians , said in an interview. “We are encouraged that the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may help to address some of these conflicts and remain cognizant of the potential challenges faced by physicians and patients outside the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit.”

The ruling stems from a 2014 federal appropriations law that banned the Justice Department from interfering with state implementation of marijuana laws. Short-term measures since then have extended the prohibition, which now continues through Sept. 30, 2016. Defendants in 10 criminal cases sued the federal government, requesting their prosecutions be dismissed on the grounds that the Justice Department is prevented from spending funds to prosecute them. The parties were accused of various federal marijuana offenses, including conspiracy to manufacture and possession with intent to distribute. The Justice Department argued it is not preventing states from operating their medical marijuana laws by prosecuting private individuals. Three district courts declined to halt the prosecutions from proceeding.

But the appeals court ruled that the Justice Department is prohibited from spending funds from relevant federal appropriation to prosecute the defendants if their conduct was permitted by state medical marijuana laws. Judges remanded the cases to the district courts with instructions that if the Justice Department wishes to continue the cases, the appellants are entitled to hearings to determine whether their actions were authorized by state laws.

The decision is significant because it establishes an appellate level precedent regarding enforcement of the Congressional budget requirements, said Joshua Prober, general counsel and senior vice president for the American Osteopathic Association. However, the decision does not overturn federal criminal laws regarding marijuana use and is limited to the impact of Congress’ specific budgetary authorization measure, he said.

“As noted in the court’s opinion, it is quite possible that a future Congress will not put the same restrictions in place on federal prosecutorial activity,” Mr. Prober said in an interview. “And obviously there are the procedural limitations, i.e., the decision is only the view of one appellate circuit. It is possible that a different appellate court might find the Department of Justice’s arguments to be more persuasive.”

The appeals ruling comes less than a week after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency refused to reclassify marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. Marijuana remains a schedule I controlled substance, noting in its decision that marijuana does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in the United States, that there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and that it has a high potential for abuse.

“The DEA and FDA continue to believe that scientifically valid and well-controlled clinical trials conducted under investigational new drug applications are the proper way to research all potential new medicines, including marijuana,” DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg wrote in a letter to state governors. “Furthermore, we believe that the drug approval process is the proper way to assess whether a product derived from marijuana or its constituent parts is safe and effective for medical use.”

While tension between state and federal law regarding marijuana lingers, more states continue to approve marijuana for recreational and medical use, noted John A. DiNome , a health law attorney based in Philadelphia. So far, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, and Alaska allow recreational marijuana use, while 25 states have approved marijuana for medical use. At least 9 more states will consider recreational marijuana use in November.

“For the time being, the problem still exists,” Mr. DiNome said in an interview. “This temporarily keeps doctors off the hook from prosecution, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem, which is: Is federal law going to change?”


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