Federal Court Rules That Cannabis Protections Do Not Apply to Federal Land
The Department of Justice is blocked from prosecuting state-legal cannabis operations, but a California court ruled that it’s free to prosecute anyone growing weed on federal property.
Published on April 6, 2018

Although the Trump administration has made constant threats to crack down on legal weed, state-legal cannabis industries have enjoyed some degree of protection from federal interference thanks to the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment. This amendment, attached to every annual federal budget bill since 2014, prohibits the Department of Justice from using federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana patients, producers, and caregivers that are legal under state law. This week, however, a federal court ruled that anyone attempting to grow cannabis on federal property, even if it exists within a canna-legal state, is not covered under these protections.

In 2012, three men were busted for growing 118 cannabis plants in El Dorado County, California. The land was rented by John Mahan for the purpose of growing medical cannabis. This was completely legal under California law, but the specific area where the plants were growing was actually federally-owned land, controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. Police also arrested Russell Gilmore, who was reportedly hired to cultivate the pot, and Richard Hemsley, who was hired as a security guard.

Mahan eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to grow marijuana in 2015, but the jury was deadlocked in the case of the other two men. Attorneys argued that the case against these two should be dismissed because the cannabis grow was protected under the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment (known at the time as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment). Five men who were arrested for cultivating medical cannabis in Washington State recently won a similar case against the federal government. Last fall, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the DoJ was not authorized to spend money prosecuting these individuals due to the protections established by this amendment.

A federal judge denied Hemsley and Gilmore's request to dismiss their case, since their grow was located on federal land. The two men appealed, but this week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld the lower court's ruling. "Nothing in California law purports to authorize the cultivation of marijuana on federal land," Judge Lynn Adelman wrote in the 3-0 ruling. "Even if state law tolerated marijuana cultivation on federal land, federal law forbids such use."

The two men argued that they had no idea that their grow was on federal land, but the court ruled that it was "irrelevant whether they knew the garden was on federal land," and that "the government is not required to prove such knowledge" in order to convict them. Now that their appeal has been denied, the two men can be brought to trial again by federal prosecutors.

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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