clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Congress told the Justice Department to stop fighting medical marijuana. It didn't work.

Medical marijuana stores in California.
Medical marijuana stores in California.
Kevin Balluff/Moment via Getty Images

Charles Lynch was running a legal medical marijuana dispensary in California — but that didn't stop the feds from raiding his store in 2007, throwing him in jail, and later placing him on home arrest, rendering him unable to find work and, as a result, leading to the loss of his home.

"I have no work and no money," Lynch, 52, told the New York Times's Erik Eckholm, "and I'm depending on others to survive."

Lynch, who's out on bond as he appeals several federal convictions for marijuana trafficking, is one of hundreds of people caught in the middle of a conflict between state laws that allow medical pot, like California's, and federal laws that prohibit it. Since the 1990s, federal agencies have been raiding and prosecuting medical pot businesses even if they're legal under state law — but now Congress is trying to put an end to it.

Congress tried to halt the Justice Department's raids on medical marijuana businesses

medical marijuana

Medical marijuana. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News)

Congress tried to put an end to the US Department of Justice's interference with state laws last year, when it passed a budget deal that prohibited the use of federal funds to prevent states from implementing their own medical marijuana laws. Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia allow pot for medical purposes.

But the Justice Department argues the budget amendment doesn't overrule its ability to prosecute cases like Lynch's through the Controlled Substances Act, which set the federal ban on marijuana.

Reps. Sam Farr (D) and Dana Rohrabacher (R), who wrote the budget amendment, insist the Justice Department is wrong — and can't continue cracking down on state-legal medical pot businesses. In a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this month, Farr and Rohrabacher wrote, "The purpose of our amendment was to prevent the Department from wasting its limited law enforcement resources on prosecutions and asset forfeiture actions against medical marijuana patients and providers, including businesses that operate legally under state law."

The issue may ultimately fall to the courts. Lynch's lawyers told the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees courts in California and several other states, to "direct the [Justice Department] to cease spending funds on the case," according to the Times.

It's unclear how courts will rule. But a decision in favor of Lynch and his business could be huge: if the Justice Department can't enforce the federal ban, medical marijuana would be effectively legal at the federal level.

Watch: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) discusses racial disparities in the criminal justice system

Further reading

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.