The clash between state and federal law regarding the use of medical marijuana continues to present an ongoing dilemma for courts around the country, as illustrated by a recent decision by the Eighth Circuit. In the United States v. Schostag, the Eighth Circuit affirmed a decision by the District Court of Minnesota barring a felon from using state-legal medical marijuana while he is on supervised release.
Schostag, a Minnesota resident, pled guilty in 2008 to felony possession of a firearm and attempted possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute, and was sentenced to 120 months in prison and five months of supervised release. After he got out of prison in October 2015, the terms of his release included refraining from possession or use of any controlled substances except as prescribed by a physician.
In 2014, Minnesota legalized the prescription of medical marijuana by physicians. In 2017, the defendant notified his probation officer that his physician had prescribed him medical marijuana for chronic pain, specifically a type of vaporized oil containing THC. The defendant’s probation officer advised him that any consumption of marijuana, whether prescribed or otherwise, violated the terms of his supervised release. When the defendant tested positive for marijuana, his probation officer reported the violation.
At the defendant’s revocation hearing, he argued that his use of medical marijuana was simply complying with the conditions of his supervised release by following the orders of his physician. The district court disagreed, and modified the defendant’s special conditions to specifically prohibit the defendant from the possession or use of marijuana for any purpose. In its decision, the district court acknowledged the inherent challenges of managing chronic pain, noting the narcotic and highly addictive nature of many pain medications. The court nonetheless gave him only two weeks to find a means other than medical marijuana to address his pain issues.
The defendant appealed the district court’s decision, arguing that the district court should have used its discretion to allow him to use medical marijuana during the term of his supervised release. The Eighth Circuit disagreed, finding that while the district court had the discretion to modify the terms of the defendant’s release, it could not amend those terms in contradiction with federal law. The court noted that under the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is considered a Schedule 1 drug and therefore outlawed in all forms and for any purpose. The court found that while Minnesota state law legalized medical marijuana for limited purposes, where any conflict existed between Minnesota law and federal law, federal law prevailed under the Supremacy Clause.
The Eighth Circuit’s discussion in Schostag highlights the conflict between federal law and state laws governing the use of medical marijuana. The result is not surprising – a federal district court must apply federal sentencing law to defendants in custody or under supervision, regardless of whether the defendant is from a state where medical marijuana is legal. But the case tees up some interesting issues that will continue to face courts as the benefits of medical marijuana become more widely accepted, especially in light of the growing opioid epidemic.