April 30, 2017

Colorado Supreme Court: Controlled Substances Act Preempts State Medical Marijuana Redistribution Law

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Crouse on Monday, January 23, 2017.

Robert Crouse was arrested by the Colorado Springs Police Department for cultivating and possessing marijuana with the intent to manufacture. He was charged with one felony count of cultivation of more than thirty marijuana plants and one felony count of possession of between five and one hundred pounds of marijuana with intent to distribute. At trial, Crouse asserted that he was a registered medical marijuana patient, and that state law authorized his cultivation and possession of medical marijuana. The jury acquitted him of both charges.

After trial, Crouse requested that the court order the police to return the marijuana plants and marijuana pursuant to article XVIII, § 14(2)(e) of the Colorado Constitution, which provides that “marijuana and paraphernalia seized by state or local law enforcement officials from a patient . . . in connection with the claimed medical use of marijuana shall be returned immediately upon . . . the dismissal of charges, or acquittal.” The People opposed the motion, arguing the provision conflicts with the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and is therefore preempted. The district court ruled in Crouse’s favor and ordered the return of the property.

The People appealed, and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the district court in a split opinion. The court of appeals ruled that returning Crouse’s property would not violate the CSA because the statute expressly provides immunity for officers lawfully engaged in the enforcement of any law relating to controlled substances. The Colorado Supreme Court granted certiorari.

On appeal, the supreme court found that the return provision necessarily required officers to violate the CSA, and therefore it “positively conflicts” with federal law. The supreme court dismissed the court of appeals’ reasoning that the officers were exempted by the language in 21 U.S.C. § 885(d) only if they were “lawfully engaged” in the practice of law enforcement. The court reasoned that because distribution of marijuana is unlawful under the CSA, the exemption would not apply. The court relied on its prior opinion in Coats v. Dish Network, 350 P.3d 849 (Colo. 2015), for the premise that any activity that is unlawful under federal law, though it may be lawful under state law, is unlawful.

The supreme court reversed the court of appeals. Justice Gabriel dissented, joined by Chief Justice Rice and Justice Hood. In his thoughtful dissent, Justice Gabriel opined that the plain language of § 885 immunized the law enforcement officers, and therefore the Colorado Constitution was not preempted by the CSA.

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