Arizona Court: Federal Law Does Not Invalidate State Medical Marijuana Scheme

As public conversation escalates about how the federal government will respond to new state laws legalizing and regulating marijuana, an Arizona court rejected an argument Monday that federal law invalidates the state’s medical marijuana scheme. Judge Michael D. Gordon rebuffed Maricopa County’s attempt to skirt a marijuana dispensary’s zoning request by arguing that the two-year-old Arizona Medical Marijuana Act is preempted by the federal Controlled Substances Act:

Clearly, the mere State authorization of a very limited amount of federally proscribed conduct, under a tight regulatory scheme, provides no meaningful obstacle to federal enforcement. No one can argue that the federal government’s ability to enforce the CSA is impaired to the slightest degree. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has been unequivocal on this point.

Instead of frustrating the CSA’s purpose, it is sensible to argue that the AMMA furthers the CSA’s objective in combating drug abuse and the illegitimate trafficking of controlled substances. The Arizona statute requires a physician to review a patient’s medical circumstances prior to authorization of its use. The statute also provides the ADHS with full regulatory authority. The ADHS, in turn, has exercised that authority with appropriate care to ensure that licensed dispensaries operate only within the confines of the AMMA. The detailed regulations ensure the marijuana is used for medical purposes only.

This decision not only affirms the sound legal footing of the medical marijuana laws now in 18 states; some of its reasoning could also support the two new state laws that legalize and regulate recreational marijuana. As with Arizona’s medical marijuana law, the stated purpose by proponents of the Washington and Colorado laws is to further the public health and safety goals of the CSA by regulating the marijuana market and funneling legitimate tax revenue into research and public education.


Federal response to medical marijuana laws has fluctuated since President Obama took office — while the Department of Justice initially indicated that it would not prioritize federal prosecution of medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they are legal, it later appeared to scale back that guarantee to apply to only individuals and not dispensaries. Officials have continued to make conflicting statements about the scope of federal crackdowns, while continuing to target some state law-abiding dispensaries.

Federal officials have not yet indicated whether they will take a similar approach to the Washington and Colorado laws, nor whether they will launch a similar preemption challenge, saying only that their enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act “remains unchanged.” Meanwhile, members of Congress have implored federal officials not to target those abiding by state law, and some have proposed a bill to exempt states with marijuana laws from the CSA.

The challenge to the Arizona law came after an applicant seeking to open what would be the state’s first licensed dispensary alleged that the county refused to provide necessary zoning documentation. The county responded in part by arguing that portions of the medical marijuana law are preempted by federal law.