April 17, 2016
Would Congress be wise to pursue sentencing reform through DOJ spending limitations?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Reason piece by Jacob Sullum headlined "DOJ Accepts Decision Saying It May Not Target State-Legal Medical Marijuana Suppliers: The feds had argued that a spending rider left them free to shut down dispensaries." Here are the details:
The Justice Department has abandoned its appeal of a ruling that said federal prosecutors are breaking the law when they target medical marijuana providers who comply with state law. U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer issued that ruling last October, when he said enforcing an injunction against a state-legal dispensary would violate a spending rider that prohibits the DOJ from interfering with state laws allowing medical use of marijuana. The Justice Department initially asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to overturn Breyer's decision but later changed its mind, and on Tuesday the court granted its request to withdraw the appeal.
That decision leaves in place Breyer's ruling, which involved the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana (MAMM), without establishing a circuit-wide precedent. Presumably the DOJ worried that the 9th Circuit would agree with Breyer's reading of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which says the department may not use appropriated funds to "prevent" states from "implementing" their medical marijuana laws. The DOJ argues that prosecuting medical marijuana suppliers, seizing their property, and shutting them down does not prevent implementation of laws authorizing them. Breyer said that interpretation "defies language and logic."
The rider that Breyer considered expired last year, but the same language was included in the omnibus spending bill for the current fiscal year. If Congress continues to renew the amendment and other courts agree with Breyer's understanding of it, medical marijuana growers and suppliers who comply with state law will have less reason to worry about raids, arrests, and forfeiture actions, although uncertainty will remain in states where the rules for dispensaries are unclear. For the time being, that remains true in California, although state regulations aimed at clarifying the situation are scheduled to take effect in 2018.
In other words, now that DOJ has (sort-of) accepted a broad reading of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, this DOJ spending limitation has (sort-of) achieved indirectly what Congress has been unwilling or unable to do directly, namely authorize states and individuals to move forward with a responsible medical marijuana program without persistent concerns that DOJ may raid and prosecute participants. Of course, this spending limitation can and will expire if not consistently renewed by Congress. But still, as this Sullum piece highlights, even a short-term spending limit can end up having some real bite.
In light of this intriguing "spending limit" back-door form of congressional marijuana reform, I am now wondering if this approach should be pursued sentencing reformers/advocates growing frustrated Congress has not yet been able to pass a significant statutory sentencing reform bill. Though some clever drafting might be needed, I could imagine a provision in a federal budget bill that prohibited the Department of Justice from, say, expending any funds to prosecute a non-violent drug offender using statutes that carry any mandatory minimum sentencing term or expending any funds to continue to imprison anyone whose prison sentence would have been completed had the Fair Sentencing Act been made retroactive.
My suggestion here might ultimately be more of a Swiftian "modest proposal" than a real suggestion for how real work can get done on sentencing reform in Congress. Nevertheless, as the prospect of major federal statutory sentencing reform semes to grow ever darker with each passing week, I am ever eager to consider and suggest whatever it might take to turn the enduring bipartisan sentencing reform talk into some consequential legislative action.
April 17, 2016 at 09:46 PM | Permalink
There should be NO penalties for cannabis use. Since it's less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, it should be treated even less harshly. I know this subject as a 40 year emergency physician, now retired.
Posted by: david d spilker | Apr 19, 2016 12:08:57 PM
federal government must respect laws passed by the state
Posted by: Marisa vadell | Apr 19, 2016 3:38:22 PM
Thank you, this is excellent work you are doing
Posted by: Student | May 20, 2016 4:46:55 AM