One area of drug crimes that is rapidly changing is the treatment of medical marijuana. This refers to the cultivation or use of marijuana to treat medical issues. Although the possession or production of marijuana has traditionally been a crime, there is a growing trend among states to carve out exceptions for medical purposes, including the treatment of terminal illnesses like cancer, AIDS, and glaucoma.
Federal and State Laws
Under federal law, the possession of marijuana remains a criminal offense because it is categorized as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). According to CSA, marijuana has no recognized accepted medical use in the United States and, because of the potential for abuse, it is prohibited. In Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005), the Supreme Court held that it is illegal to possess marijuana under current federal laws, even for medical purposes.
Importantly, state laws legalizing medical marijuana are different from those legalizing recreational marijuana, and even if a state has legalized both, different rules likely apply to each form.
There is a growing trend, however, for states to legalize the use of marijuana for demonstrated medical purposes. These laws are rapidly changing and have been adopted by an increasing number of states, often by voter initiatives. By legalizing medical marijuana, states decriminalize the use and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for personal ailments, and also protect doctors who may prescribe medical marijuana for their patients. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Since that time, similar laws have been passed in more than 10 states, and the number continues to grow. Each state’s law sets forth the circumstances under which medical marijuana may be used, and most require that patients obtain an authorization or prescription of some sort from a doctor. Many states also limit the amount of marijuana a patient may possess or grow to discourage personal cultivation for commercial purposes. Thus, for instance, in California a patient may cultivate six mature marijuana plants for personal use, while Delaware and Connecticut require that only state-licensed compassionate care centers or agents can cultivate medical marijuana.
Notably, in 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the use of marijuana for any purpose, and both are currently regulating the sale and use of marijuana as a commercial good, like alcohol or tobacco.
Despite the state trend toward legalization, the federal government has continued to resist legalization of medical marijuana. Additionally, while the government has at times indicated that prosecution of marijuana crimes is not a priority, it has continued to take action against medical marijuana providers, even in states where medical marijuana is legalized. Accordingly, patients and businesses interested in medical marijuana should carefully assess their rights and risks under both state and federal law.
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Medical Marijuana Registries
In order to ensure that only patients with valid medical needs are accessing marijuana, many states have enacted medical marijuana registries to assist law enforcement in identifying legal users. Thus, in states like Alaska and Vermont, patients interested in medical marijuana must obtain a valid doctor’s recommendation and then apply for a state identification card permitting them to purchase and grow medical marijuana. Individuals who successfully obtain an identification card are entered into the state registry. Law enforcement may then use these databases to cross-reference individuals found to be in possession of marijuana in order to determine if the possession is legal or not. Those who attempt to falsify their status as a medical marijuana patient or otherwise take advantage of the state systems may be subject to prison time or fines.