The tension between state medical marijuana laws, which allow patient use, and federal regulations that criminalize all pot has existed for years, with occasional court rulings -- like the 2011 conviction of Highlands Ranch MMJ grower Chris Bartkowicz -- touching on the contradiction. But a just-issued decision in Arapahoe County District Court may be the most sweeping to date in Colorado. The conclusion: The medical marijuana industry here and in other states is illegal. Period.
At first blush, the case hardly seems like a landmark. It involves a medical marijuana grower whose name is being withheld at his request and Blue Sky Care Connection, a dispensary in Littleton. The plaintiff maintains that he delivered approximately $40,000 worth of MMJ between June and October of 2010, but he never received compensation in the form of either cash or what's referred to in the document as "a potential business partnership."
As such, the grower took Blue Sky to court, with a trial taking place this past April. But in May, rather than weighing in on the basic dispute, Judge Charles M. Pratt ordered the combatants to "file briefs explaining why this Court should not declare the purported contract void as against public policy."
As Pratt acknowledges, neither the plaintiff nor Blue Sky "raised the issue of legality." Rather, "the issue was...raised by the Court" to determine if the contract violated public policy.
This last phrase is as loaded as it is important to the judgment. Going way back to Russell v. Courier Printing & Publ'g Co., a Colorado Supreme Court ruling from 1908, to support his view, Pratt argues that "if the disputed contract violates federal law, it would be against public policy and would be void and unenforceable."
With this matter as a backdrop, Pratt determines that the plaintiff and Blue Sky did indeed enter into a contract, and the dispensary breached it. But to cut through the legalese: If the contract involved something illegal, that didn't matter.
Here's how Pratt lays out the responses he received on the subject of marijuana violating public policy:
The Court ordered the parties to brief the issue of whether a contract for marijuana is void against public policy. Plaintiff argues that the Court must enforce the contract because it is valid under Colorado law and further argues that it would be beyond the scope of this case for the Court to address the federal drug issues. Defendants argue that the contract is void as against public policy because it violates federal law prohibiting the cultivation and use of marijuana. Defendants also assert that the contract is void as against public policy because Plaintiff violated state marijuana regulatory law.
The judge then makes the following assertions:
• Colorado State Law Does Not Create a Constitutional Right for Citizens to Use and Possess Medical Marijuana.
• Possession and use of marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
• Federal law regarding marijuana preempts state law because Colorado state law creates an obstacle to the full enforcement of federal law.
In backing up his conclusion that marijuana is illegal at the federal level, and therefore supersedes state law, Pratt mentions a number of marijuana-related court cases we've covered in this space, including ones involving Jason Beinor, a medical marijuana patient who lost his street-sweeping job after failing a drug test; Leonard Watkins, an MMJ patient prevented from using cannabis while on parole; and Stacy Clendenin, a caregiver who a court decided hadn't gone beyond providing pot for her patients.
However, the decision goes beyond Colorado cases to invoke ones that involve numerous other states, all to reinforce the determination that the federal view on marijuana is first among equals. An example:
It is not physically impossible to comply with both state and federal law because a person can simply refrain from using marijuana, medical or otherwise. In Emerald Steel Fabricators, Inc. v. Bureau of Labor & Indus.(230P.3d 518, 528 (Or. 2010)), the Oregon Supreme Court applied similar reasoning and concluded that it is not physically impossible for Oregon residents to comply with both federal law and Oregon's medical marijuana law because residents can refrain from using marijuana altogether. Similarly, it is not physically impossible for Colorado residents to comply with both federal and state law; therefore the physical impossibility standard of preemption is not satisfied.
After weighing these rulings, Pratt writes that "contracts for the sale of marijuana are void as they are against public policy. Accordingly, the contract here is void and unenforceable."
What are the possible repercussions of this sweeping judgment beyond the plaintiff not getting paid for his work? Greg Goodman, the attorney representing the plaintiff in this case, declines to comment, leaving the ruling to speak for itself. Read it here:
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More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana: Ten dispensaries targeted in third wave of U.S. Attorney closure letters."