Somin on Medical Marijuana Use and the Law

As Florida considers a proposed amendment to allow medical use of marijuana, Professor Ilya Somin comments on statements by Florida's attorney general in a brief challenging the proposal in the Florida Supreme Court.  

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi maintains that whether the amendment passes or not, the medical use of marijuana is a federal criminal offense.

"Just because federal law bans something doesn't mean states have to," says Somin, pointing out that whether the U.S. government can enforce policy that contradicts state law is a separate question.

Somin offers a reminder that priorities of the Justice Department are subject to change and that shifts in guidelines to federal prosecutors can arise with subsequent administrations or changes in leadership. What's more, federal prosecutors could ignore guidelines and pursue prosecution of medical marijuana users anyway.

Pam Bondi Says Medical Marijuana is Illegal Under Federal Law, With or Without Amendment, Tampa Bay Times, December 17, 2013. By Joshua Gillin.

"The Controlled Substances Act imposes strict penalties on marijuana users, growers and sellers. A first misdemeanor offense for possession in any amount can result in a $1,000 fine and a year in prison, climbing for subsequent offenses to as much as $5,000 and three years.

"Selling cannabis is considered a felony. Punishments range from a $250,000 fine and 5 years in prison to as much as $10 million and up to life for selling 1,000 kilograms or more. Penalties double if the sale is to a minor or within 1,000 feet of a school, playground or public housing. Cultivating cannabis plants carries similar penalties, contingent on the volume.

"Feds let states take the lead

"Even with federal law on the books prohibiting marijuana, there are reasons users and distributors aren't constantly being busted by the Drug Enforcement Agency. There is a continuing debate over state rights versus federal control, and decriminalizing marijuana is a flashpoint."

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