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Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Gain Important Victory in Federal Court

Medical marijuana dispensaries scored a major win on Monday when a federal judge ruled that the Department of Justice cannot prosecute legal providers of medical cannabis.

In his ruling, Senior District Judge Charles R. Breyer lifted an injunction against a California dispensary, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, and its founder, Lynette Shaw, ruling that a budget amendment Congress approved last year requires the federal government to respect state marijuana laws.

The DOJ is thus precluded from criminally prosecuting organizations like MAMM that comply with state regulations.

The amendment, sponsored by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Sam Farr (D-Calif.), was added to last year's federal spending bill. Under the provision, the Justice Department is prohibited from using federal funds to undermine state medical marijuana programs. The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment came in response to a renewed federal crackdown on the medical marijuana industry in California, where medical pot has been legal since 1996. MAMM, located in Fairfax, California, was one of the targeted dispensaries, and shuttered in 2011 under federal pressure.

However, the Justice Department has narrowly interpreted the amendment, telling the Los Angeles Times in April that the new restrictions don't apply to dispensaries or individuals, but instead prevents the feds from "impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws."

The amendment's authors vehemently disagreed, accusing the DOJ of violating the law and calling for an investigation into the department's crackdown on legal businesses.

Monday's ruling struck a blow to the DOJ's interpretation of the law, which Breyer said "tortures the plain meaning of the statute."

"It defies language and logic for the Government to argue that it does not 'prevent' California from 'implementing' its medical marijuana laws by shutting down these same heavily-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries," Breyer wrote. "And contrary to the Government's representation, the record here does support a finding that Californians' access to legal medical marijuana has been substantitively impeded by the closing of dispensaries, and the closing of MAMM in particular."

The decision could have wide-ranging implications, as 23 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized pot for medical use. Another 17 states have allowed the use of non-psychoactive cannabis extract to treat conditions like severe epilepsy in children.

Marijuana advocates applauded Breyer's ruling Tuesday.

"This is a big win for medical marijuana patients and their providers, and a significant victory in our efforts to end the federal government’s war on marijuana. Federal raids of legitimate medical marijuana businesses aren’t just stupid and wasteful, but also illegal," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for Marijuana Policy Project, in a statement.

"It's great to see the judicial branch finally starting to hold the Justice Department accountable for its willful violation of Congress's intent to end federal interference with state medical marijuana laws,"said Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority. "I hope the Obama administration takes this ruling to heart and makes sure DEA and federal prosecutors finally stop trying to stand between patients and their medicine."

Shaw, MAMM's founder, also praised the ruling.

"I'm very happy and I’m very relieved that I will get to return to my life’s work,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle.

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