Federal Judge Blocks Prosecution of Northern California Pot Growers
A judge in San Francisco, in the first known ruling of its kind, has halted federal prosecution of two North Coast marijuana growers because Congress has prohibited the Justice Department from interfering with states’ medical marijuana laws.
Anthony Pisarski and Sonny Moore pleaded guilty in 2014 to conspiring to possess and grow marijuana on a farm in Humboldt County and faced a three-year prison sentence under federal guidelines. But U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg suspended further proceedings in the case this week and said the prosecution was barred by restrictions Congress first added to the Justice Department’s budget in late 2014, and has renewed ever since.
The evidence shows that Pisarski and Moore “strictly complied with all relevant conditions imposed by California law,” Seeborg said in his ruling Tuesday.
The defendants, who are free on bail, will seek to withdraw their guilty pleas, said Pisarski’s lawyer, Ronald Richards.
“We’re finally seeing the tide turning and the law changing,” Richards said. “I never thought I’d have the right to stop a federal criminal prosecution.”
He said other marijuana defendants in California have challenged their federal prosecutions since the appeals court ruling, but this is the first successful challenge.
The victory will be temporary, though, if Congress allows the budget amendment to expire. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called for removal of the restrictions from the budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, and Seeborg said prosecutors could then ask to reopen the case.
But Richards said the budget amendment cleared its first Senate subcommittee with bipartisan support, and he’s confident it will be renewed.
Pisarski, now 38, and Moore, 41, were arrested in July 2012 by state officers who said they found 327 marijuana plants, along with two loaded guns and $416,000 in cash. Searches over the next year uncovered more firearms, cash and gold and silver bars on the property in a remote part of central Humboldt County.
The two men presented evidence that they grew the marijuana for nearby nonprofit collectives, which reimbursed them for their costs. Moore said he was also a caregiver for his mother, and that she had a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana.
State prosecutors filed no charges. In arguing for the federal conspiracy charge, U.S. prosecutors contended the cash, gold and silver showed that Pisarski and Moore were selling pot for profit outside the bounds of the California law, and thus were not protected by the budget amendment.
But Seeborg observed that legal transactions for medical marijuana “are often made in cash because banks are unwilling to help facilitate the business.” And he said the “presence of cash, precious metals, and weapons is equally consistent with the operation of a rural, cash-intensive enterprise.”
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