A federal appeals panel on Friday affirmed a Minnesota district court’s ruling that bars a felon from using state-legal medical marijuana while he is on supervised release.
Three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit said that although prescription medical marijuana has been legal in Minnesota since 2014, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank “correctly concluded” that John Edward Schostag’s use “even for medical purposes … contravenes federal law.”
“Accordingly, we conclude the district court had no discretion to allow Schostag to use medical marijuana while on supervised release,” Circuit Senior Judge Michael Melloy wrote. His five-page opinion was joined by Judges Bobby Shepherd and recent Trump appointee L. Steven Grasz.
The new ruling reflects the state-federal conflict over marijuana that courts are grappling with at both levels.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York said in a ruling that he would no longer send defendants on supervised release to jail solely for using marijuana. Weinstein said such jail orders serve “no useful purpose” for defendants who are otherwise rehabilitated.
“As a result of these errors in our sentencing practice, money and the time of our probation officers are wasted and supervisees are unnecessarily burdened,” Weinstein wrote.
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Schostag, a Minnesota resident, pleaded guilty in 2008 to being a felon in possession of a firearm and attempted possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and five years of supervised release. Upon his release from prison in October 2015, Schostag was ordered to “not unlawfully possess a controlled substance … except as prescribed by a physician.” He was also told not to “commit any crimes, federal, state, or local.”
In April 2017, Schostag told his probation officer he had obtained a medical marijuana prescription from his doctor for chronic pain. The next month he tested positive for marijuana in a drug screen.
At a revocation hearing, the district court modified his release terms, ordering him specifically not to possess marijuana or a prescription for its use. The court did not find Schostag in violation of his probation terms and gave him two weeks to consult with a doctor about pain management options before the modified supervision orders took effect. Schostag appealed.
Schostag’s attorneys acknowledged the state-federal “legal limbo” over marijuana but urged the appellate court to delegate the decision over medical marijuana use to medical professionals.
“In this way, the health care decisions are placed in the capable hands of professionals with the necessary specialized expertise,” Manny Atwal, an assistant federal public defender, wrote in court papers. “Courts have long deferred to such health care professionals, and should do so here as well.”
Federal prosecutors argued that Schostag had no case because he was never found in violation of his release conditions. Also, prosecutors said, the district court did not commit a reversible error.
“The fact some states permit possession of marijuana for medicinal purposes does not supplant federal law,” wrote David Genrich, an assistant U.S. attorney. He added: “Courts require federal supervisees to refrain from possession of marijuana while on supervision notwithstanding state medical marijuana laws.”