Cannabis has remained federally illegal at the same time states continue to legalize cannabis in one form or another. As a result of legalization, private parties enter and perform contracts, loan and borrow money, and convey leasehold property rights in ways that involve cannabis. These contracts affect and depend upon millions of dollars in assets, including real estate, thereby interweaving the cannabis industry into the economic systems that allow our free market economy to function. Courts, and especially federal district courts and courts of appeal, often must wrestle with whether and how to enforce such contracts where one body of law says they are void as illegal and says they are perfectly valid.
Courts have generally been willing to enforce these contracts and have come up with some pretty creative arguments for doing so, perhaps because of the economic disruption that would occur if parties were suddenly permitted to walk away from contractual obligations and the consequences to city and county governments that have issued property entitlements and licenses to cannabis businesses. However, a recent appellate court decision illustrates how there are still limits on the ability to indulge, even when done in compliance with state law.
In U.S. v. Schostag, a defendant had pleaded guilty to felony possession of a firearm and attempted possession of methamphetamine and was sentenced to 120 months in prison and 5 years of supervised release. One of the conditions of his release set by a federal district court in Minnesota was that he not possess or use any controlled substance “except as prescribed by a physician.” Minnesota law allows physicians to prescribe certain forms of medical marijuana and the defendant notified his probation officer that his doctor had prescribed medical marijuana for chronic pain. The probation officer advised the defendant that, cannabis prescription or, defendant’s consuming cannabis would violate the terms of his release because it was prohibited by federal law.
The defendant tested positive for marijuana and his probation officer reported the violation. Defendant argued he was simply following the terms of his release conditions, which allowed for him to use prescribed controlled substances. The district court, apparently acknowledging the awkwardness of the language, modified his release conditions to explicitly forbid defendant from using marijuana even possession with a medical marijuana prescription and gave defendant two weeks to find a legal form of pain management. Defendant appealed this decision, arguing that the court should have exercised its discretion in setting his release conditions and should have allowed him to use medical marijuana under Minnesota law.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected defendant’s argument, noting that under federal sentencing law, federal courts can modify release conditions but cannot do so in a way that violates federal law, including the CSA, which outlaws marijuana in all forms. The court also declined to engage in any nuanced discussion of the interplay between federal and state laws on cannabis, instead simply declaring, “the state’s law conflicts with federal law.” Though this decision seems harsh, consider the alternative: if the court had allowed the defendant to use marijuana while on federally supervised release — the conditions of which a federal court is itself responsible for setting — this would have amounted to a federal entity (the court) directly allowing for a violation of federal law. This wasn’t a contract between private parties; it was the federal government deciding whether to allow a releasee under its supervision to use a substance that is unquestionably prohibited by federal law.
Though the court in Schostag found Minnesota’s medical marijuana law to conflict with federal law, there is a colorable argument that this case is an outlier from the general trend of federal courts being unwilling to get in the way of state-legal cannabis. The federal government and its court system cannot be expected to ignore federal controlled substances law when applying federal sentencing law to those under federal custody or supervision simply because the court happens to be located in a state with contrary laws on cannabis.
An example of a similar approach occurred in Forest City Residential Management, Inc. v. Beasley where a federal district court in Michigan held that tenants in a federally subsidized housing project were not entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the federal Fair Housing Act to use medical marijuana at their rental units. Though closer to a private contract than federal sentencing guidelines, allowing marijuana use in federally subsidized housing as a legal accommodation is akin to the federal government sanctioning a clear violation of federal law within the confines of its own program.
Though the general trend is that federal courts are reluctant to interfere with state legal cannabis activity, that tolerance typically stops at the doorstep of federal programs operating under federal law. This is something Congress can and should change, not the judiciary. Unless and until cannabis becomes federally legal, we will continue to see courtroom manifestations of the cannabis federalism fight.