As the result of a Supreme Court case in 2005, the federal government can prohibit the cultivation, possession, and use of medical marijuana within the border of each state. Prior to this decision, Congress did not have authority to create laws regulating the growth of marijuana and the use of marijuana that did not cross state lines.

Types of Federal Medical Marijuana Prosecution

Since marijuana is federally classified as a Schedule I drug, individuals involved in the cultivation, distribution, prescription, and marketing of marijuana are subject to prosecution under federal law, even in states that have legalized medical marijuana. The following are groups that are typically prosecuted:

  • Cultivators -Those who grow and cultivate marijuana for medical purposes, even if permitted by the state government, are subject to federal prosecution. These individuals are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, which make it illegal to grow, cultivate, or manufacture Schedule I drugs.
  • Distributors – In states where medical marijuana has been legalized, various distributors have state permission to distribute marijuana to those with prescriptions or medical cards. These operations vary in size and quality, but nearly all are subject to federal prosecution for the distribution of a Schedule I substance.
  • Doctors – In states where medical marijuana has been legalized, doctors may also face legal trouble. Most often, doctors will not face criminal prosecution, but because medical licenses are federally distributed, the government has the ability to sanction the doctor.

Which States Permit Medical Marijuana?

The majority of states do not have laws that permit medical marijuana use. However, twenty-two states currently allow medical marijuana to be prescribed to certain individuals. These states are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Washington D.C.

Each state that permits medical marijuana will have different regulations. However, most states require the following before someone is authorized to use medical marijuana:

  • The patient must have a recognized medical condition.
  • The patient must have the approval of one or more licensed physicians.
  • The patient must carry a medical marijuana card and possibly may be have to be registered with the state

How Does Federal Law Affect State Laws?

As a general rule, when federal and state laws conflict, the federal law prevails. Therefore, since Congress bans all marijuana use, states and their residents are not immune from the federal government enforcing federal laws, even if the drug is permitted under state law.

Note that federal regulation is not limited to federal prosecution. If marijuana possession caused job termination, property eviction, denial of bankruptcy discharge, or any other civil law issues, medical marijuana laws will not help. State laws cannot force federal agencies or federal courts to change federal policy.

Update: As of December 2014, Congress has passed a budget provision that prohibits the use of federal funding to prevent state implementation of medical marijuana programs. Although the use of marijuana for any purpose is still illegal under federal law, passage of this law will limit the number of federal prosecutions in states that recognize medical marijuana at the budget was passed. Individuals and businesses in states that have not passed medical marijuana programs will not be protected.

However, this provision only limits interference with medical marijuana. If the Justice Department can prove that marijuana possession, cultivation, and/or distribution was for recreational use, the provision would not be an obstacle to prosecution. In addition, this provision has a sunset clause; it will expire September 2015. Congress will have to renew the provision in each budget or remove the sunset clause for this change in policy to be permanent.

Should I Contact an Attorney?

Marijuana prosecution can carry severe consequences, including time in federal prison. Therefore, if you are facing prosecution for a marijuana-related offense, it is essential to hire a drug lawyer.