Just last week, on March 29th, a three-judge panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held a special setting at the University of Idaho College of Law. Judges Richard Tallman, N. Randy Smith, and Morgan Christen considered the case of Michael Assenberg v. Whitman County (Case No. 15-35757). Assenberg was appealing the district court’s summary judgment in an action against Whitman County, the Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Brett Myers, and the Quad Cities Drug Task Force. Assenberg alleged that the search of his Colfax home for marijuana and his subsequent arrest violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In 2011, law enforcement conducted a raid on his home, where Assenberg was running a medical marijuana dispensary. According to Assenberg, the raid came about after a confidential informant posing as a medical marijuana patient visited his dispensary. The Whitman County sheriff and Quad Cities Task Force seized approximately one hundred marijuana plants and Assenberg was charged with four felonies. However, the charges were later dropped in Whitman County Superior Court after it became clear the marijuana was stored incorrectly by the county.
Last week, despite controversy, criticism from both sides of the aisle, and talk of a veto, President Trump agreed to sign the federal government’s omnibus spending bill for 2018. To the relief of many in the legal cannabis industry, the spending bill retains a provision known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer (or Rohrabacher-Farr) amendment, which provides limited protection from federal prosecution for state-level legal cannabis activity.
Given both Trump’s and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ tough talk on drugs and threats to crack down on the cannabis industry, the continued presence of this amendment is a silver lining for those anxious about the future of legal cannabis. While this won’t mean a change in the federal treatment of marijuana – the amendment has been included in every spending bill since 2014 – it does indicate that the government intends to keep on its current course with regard to cannabis, as the provision has to be renewed every year to remain in effect.
Likewise, though the actual protections afforded by the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment are limited, its being signed into law was, and remains, an important indication of the federal government’s shift in attitude regarding cannabis: as the LA Times reported following the provision’s first inclusion in the spending bill, “Congress for years had resisted calls to allow states to chart their own path on pot. The marijuana measure, which forbids the federal government from using any of its resources to impede state medical marijuana laws, was previously rejected half a dozen times.” In this light, the amendment was a notable pivot from a top-down to a state-level approach to cannabis regulation.
California cannabis consumers and business owners shouldn’t get too comfortable, though: not only does the amendment not change anything about the federal government’s cannabis policy in and of itself, its terms only apply to medical marijuana, not recreational cannabis. So far, the government has rejected proposed amendments that would grant recreational cannabis operations the same protection from federal intervention. For the time being, California cannabis business owners’ best bet is to stay in full compliance with state and local law as the federal situation develops.
After Jeff Sessions’ January 4 Memo on Marijuana Enforcement, many property owners and business people are wondering if federal asset forfeiture could become a growing problem. The asset forfeiture laws allow the federal government to seize assets (e.g., bank accounts, cash, vehicles, homes, or other buildings) that the government alleges are tied to the distribution or production of controlled substances, including cannabis. They remain a problem for all cannabis businesses, although some recent reforms have reduced the impact of asset forfeiture.
On January 4, Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department issued a new Memo on Marijuana Enforcement that has left many people in states that allow marijuana confused or worried. The feds dropped this news just as California and its many cities are getting their new cannabis regulation systems going. For the first time in California, cannabis will be grown, distributed, and sold in a highly regulated environment. Substantial new tax money and jobs will be created in the state. Many have wondered, should they scrap their cannabis licensing plans and pick a new line of work?