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D.C. Marijuana Case Shows Federal Law in Confusing Limbo

Washington, D.C., voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative back in 2014 legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, but a recent prosecution highlights how the federal prohibition on marijuana distribution creates legal risks for people in D.C. and states that have legalized its use, the Washington Post reports. In a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation of a company called Joint Delivery, the D.C. U.S. attorney declined to prosecute, so the DEA took the case to the neighboring Eastern District of Virginia. There, prosecutors claimed jurisdiction because of alleged money-laundering that occurred in Virginia banks, even though the alleged illegal distribution occurred in D.C. “This is a strange kind of case, because the substance that’s involved is legal in many, many states now. It’s not in the federal system,” the federal judge hearing the case, Leonie M. Brinkema, said at a hearing May 2. “This disparity has got to get worked out soon because it creates a crazy situation in the law enforcement area.” Brinkema sentenced all of those indicted to terms of supervised release of two or three years, and ordered their profits forfeited. “It was always amazing to me that the District of Columbia, where this business essentially was, was not interested in the prosecution of this case,” Brinkema said at one of the final sentencings.

Most states and D.C. have medical marijuana programs and nearly half have legalized it for adult recreational use. Virginia has legalized possession but not nonmedical sales. Eastern District of Virginia U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber said in a statement that her office“has no interest in prosecuting individuals who are legitimately following the marijuana regulation laws of the state where they live or operate,” but that “when appropriate, we may prosecute illicit, large-scale, interstate marijuana distributors, like JointVentures, who violate federal law.” (JointVentures was Joint Delivery’s legal name.) Unlike in other jurisdictions that have legalized recreational marijuana for adults, D.C. has not been able to implement a regulatory framework for cannabis sales because Congress has blocked it from doing so in annual spending riders attached to appropriations bills since 2015. Defense attorneys in the case said Aber’s statement suggested that dozens of marijuana dispensaries in the District could now face prosecution in Virginia. The judge's reactions to the prosecution "suggest federal law really needs to catch up,” said Alex Kreit, assistant professor and director of the Center on Addiction Law and Policy at Northern Kentucky University’s Salmon P. Chase College of Law.


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