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California Just Says No to Medical Pot Prosecutions

Last week pit state law against federal law.

This week, it’s state law versus local law in the cities or counties.

Under state law, there is a defense to criminal prosecution for a medical-marijuana collective or dispensary that is run on a nonprofit basis for people who have state medical-marijuana cards or a physician’s recommendation.

But it’s also true that local cities or counties can regulate or ban medical marijuana within their borders. The California Supreme Court said so in 2013.

So when this guy was criminally prosecuted for running a collective in a city that banned them outright, a question arose.

Did he still have a defense under state law?

Before trial, the prosecution made a motion to cut off that defense, and the court granted it.

The case went to trial without the defense, but the jury struggled in deliberations. They repeatedly asked the court about the effect of local law on state law. They seemed to have genuine doubts about convicting the defendant. He’d testified at trial that he ran the collective properly and on a nonprofit basis; that only people with medical cards were allowed in the sales room; and that he paid his sales and payroll taxes. The government didn’t appear to prove otherwise.

But the court instructed the jury that local law controlled, so there was no medical-marijuana defense. Three times, the jury asked in their own way whether local law could turn something criminal under state law that wasn’t supposed to be. Each time, the court advised them that local law controlled. So eventually, the jury convicted the guy of drug trafficking and money laundering. It hung on other counts.

The court of appeal, however, reversed because local law can’t trump state law. Cities and counties may regulate or outlaw medical marijuana in their jurisdiction, and they may sue for nuisance or other civil or even criminal (infraction or misdemeanor) violations of their codes or ordinances. But state law is supreme, and it provides a defense to state criminal prosecution on the basis of local law alone.

Here’s a local story about the case.

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