Just one week after the DEA and FDA reiterated the federal government’s willingness to allow broader research into the health benefits of cannabis, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision barring the DOJ from using federal funds to prosecute individuals and businesses conducting activities in compliance with state medical cannabis laws and regulations.

In U.S. v. McIntosh, No. 15-10117, (9th Cir. 2016), the Court determined that a rider (§ 542) to the appropriations act that funded the government through September 30, 2015, which provided that funds made available under that act could not be used “to prevent [] States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession. of cultivation of medical marijuana,” was to be read as prohibiting the federal government from prosecuting individuals and businesses acting pursuant to those state laws and regulations because such prosecution would effectively prevent the states from implementing their cannabis laws and regulations.

As the Court explained, “DOJ, without taking any legal action against the Medical Marijuana States, prevents them from implementing their laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana by prosecuting individuals for use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana that is authorized by such laws. By officially permitting certain conduct, state law provides for nonprosecution 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.”

The Court was also careful to warn industry participants that cannabis-related conduct falling outside a state’s cannabis laws and regulations would not be protected from federal prosecution: “We conclude that § 542 prohibits the federal government only from preventing the implementation of those specific rules of state law that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana. DOJ does not prevent the implementation of rules authorizing conduct when it prosecutes individuals who engage in conduct unauthorized under state medical marijuana laws. Individuals who do not strictly comply with all state-law conditions regarding the use, distribution, possession, and cultivation of medical marijuana have engaged in conduct that is unauthorized, and prosecuting such individuals does not violate § 542.”