Colorado Court Ruling Says Medical Marijuana Trumped By Federal Law
A state court ruling in a legal dispute between a medical-marijuana grower and a dispensary has laid bare an argument that could be the undoing of Colorado's medical-marijuana system.
Grower Quincy Haeberle sued Blue Sky Care Connection and its manager, Laura Lowden, after saying he delivered $40,000 worth of marijuana to the business and wasn't paid. The grower wanted a judge to tell Blue Sky Care Connection to pay up.
But, in an order issued this month, Arapahoe County District Court Judge Charles Pratt found in favor of the dispensary. Because all marijuana sales are illegal under federal law, Pratt reasoned that the contract between grower and dispensary was void — in line with longstanding legal precedent that contracts concerning illegal activities are invalid.
Deeper into the ruling, Pratt made an even more significant conclusion: Colorado's entire medical-marijuana law is invalid because it is trumped by federal law.
"(A)ny state authorization to engage in the manufacture, distribution or possession of marijuana creates an obstacle to full execution of federal law," Pratt wrote. "Therefore, Colorado's marijuana laws are preempted by federal marijuana law."
Haeberle is deciding whether to appeal, his attorney said.
The ruling, which was first reported by Westword, was a jolt to Colorado's cannabis cognoscenti, even though it is uncertain how widespread its impact will be. Because the order was issued by a District Court judge, it does not count as legal precedent that other judges must follow.
A spokeswoman for the Colorado attorney general's office said the office was monitoring the case but did not have any comment.
Sean McAllister, a lawyer who specializes in medical-marijuana law but was not involved in the case, said the ruling would be detrimental to medical-marijuana businesses if adopted by other judges. But McAllister said he thinks Pratt overlooked several important decisions — such as a U.S. Supreme Court decision not to take up a case where the California Supreme Court had found that federal law does not override state medical-marijuana law.
"I think it's a very poor decision by the judge," McAllister said. "It's not one that I believe will be widely adopted."
Yet University of Denver law professor Sam Kamin said the question of federal pre-emption remains in play across the country.
This month, for instance, Arizona's attorney general issued a legal opinion saying much of that state's medical-marijuana law was invalidated by federal law. Whenever a state law authorizes a violation of a federal law, that opinion argued, it is trumped by the federal law.
"We are heading, inevitably, to a collision between state and federal law," Kamin said.
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