JULY 07, 2009
In a landmark decision, a California appellate court became the nation’s first to rule that police can be sued for destroying marijuana plants even though the drug is banned under federal law.
The case involves a “medical marijuana” grower in Butte County, north of the state capital of Sacramento, who sued the local sheriff’s department because a deputy ordered him to destroy all but 12 of the 41 pot plants growing on his property. In 1996 California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use and the county limits growers to 12 plants.
In this case the grower claimed that he had pooled his money and labor with six other patients, who would split the crop, and was therefore allowed to have the 41 plants. In late 2005 a Butte County sheriff’s deputy came to the grower’s house without a warrant and ordered him to destroy 29 plants under threat of arrest or prosecution.
Seeking tens of thousands of dollars in damages, the pot grower sued the sheriff’s department and the county for constitutional violations and for violating his rights to cultivate and use medical marijuana, which are protected by state law but banned under federal law. The county argued that users can invoke the state’s medical marijuana law only as a defense to criminal charges and not to sue for damages but a county judge disagreed and officials appealed.
This week the Sacramento-based Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the Butte County Superior Court judge’s decision refusing to toss the civil suit. In its 2-1 ruling the appellate court said that medical marijuana growers can seek money damages when police raid their property and destroy their plants.
The dissenting justice points out that no one is entitled to compensation for the destruction of a drug banned under federal law. In his rather lengthy dissent, Justice James Morrison writes that allowing the suit to go forward frustrates federal law and requires state courts to validate illegal conduct and needlessly complicates the work of law enforcement.
Large-scale drug traffickers routinely hide behind California’s “medical marijuana” law and the drug is mostly harvested for illegal recreational use, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. The federal agency has further determined that local police throughout the state cannot distinguish illegal marijuana growers from those who qualify as medical exemptions.
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