Criminal Law

When is a Medical Marijuana Dispensary Legal?

Medical and recreational pot laws have changed a lot over the past 20 years. The majority of states now allow marijuana for medical use, and a growing number of states have legalized it for recreational use as well. Eligible individuals in those states can now buy marijuana from a dispensary. However, how is a consumer to know when a medical marijuana dispensary is legal?

In most states, medical cannabis dispensaries, clubs, clinics, or collectives are licensed and regulated by city or county business ordinances, although each state's attorney general's office retains the legal authority to prosecute them under state law. This system can result in a confusing patchwork of regulations.

Legalizing Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, but as of early 2021, 36 states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical conditions. Dispensaries can go by a number of names, including collectives, cannabis clubs, healing centers, and cannabis buyers clubs.

Some states are making it much easier than others for patients to get access to a legal dispensary. States like California, Oregon, and Oklahoma each have more than 1,000 dispensaries. However, most states still highly regulate the opening of dispensaries, with a lot of restrictions and limitations.

Some states require patients to get cannabis or cannabis products directly from their prescribing doctors. Other states greatly restrict the number of medical dispensaries or only offer low THC or CBD oil extracts. Some states only have a few dispensaries, and other states are still trying to figure out how to get medication to patients after voters said yes to medical pot laws.

Even when state law allows for medical marijuana dispensaries, local county and city laws may further limit places from opening. Check out your state's medical marijuana laws and local regulations to find out about medical marijuana dispensary operations in your area.

Dispensing Medical Pot to Customers Without Qualifying Conditions

Unless a dispensary can also sell recreational marijuana, a dispensary can get into trouble for selling cannabis to non-medical customers. Medical marijuana patients must have certain qualifying conditions like:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Wasting syndrome
  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain
  • Glaucoma
  • PTSD
  • Seizure disorders
  • Crohn's disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • ALS
  • Severe nausea

Penalties for Non-Compliant Dispensaries

Even though medical cannabis is legal in most states, operating an unlicensed dispensary can result in serious penalties, including federal felony or state felony criminal charges related to the manufacturing, delivery, and distribution of marijuana. In addition to criminal charges for the owners, states have several options for penalizing unlawful dispensaries. They can issue notices to comply, suspend or revoke a business license, and issue citations.

Because dispensaries often work with larger amounts of marijuana, the penalties can be severe. Delivery of an ounce or less of marijuana may be a citation or misdemeanor. However, delivery or distribution of large amounts of marijuana may be a felony crime. As a felony, marijuana distribution or sales may be punishable by up to five years in prison or more. Other factors that can increase the jail time and fines include:

  • Dispensing within 1,000 feet of a school
  • Dispensing to a minor
  • The offender's prior record
  • Whether other illegal drugs were also involved

In addition to jail time and fines, the defendant may also have their property seized by the state. Any vehicles or property used in distribution or drug sales may be subject to criminal or civil forfeiture. Drug offenses, including marijuana distribution, may also result in a suspended driver's license.

If an illegal dispensary is moving cannabis across state lines, the owners could face federal drug trafficking charges. There is no medical exemption for cannabis under federal law. Federal prosecutors can still prosecute federal cannabis violations. The penalties for federal drug trafficking may be much more severe than state law. For example, the sale of a pound of marijuana is a federal felony, punishable by five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The sale of 50 kgs or more of cannabis is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Seeking Legal Help for an Illegal Dispensary

The state, county, and local laws surrounding legal medical cannabis can be confusing. It is no surprise that some entrepreneurs or people who really want to provide pain relief get into trouble with the law over a simple mistake.

If you have been accused of illegally operating a dispensary, you need to take the charges seriously. Your criminal defense lawyer may have a strong legal defense strategy for your case. For example, if the police did not conduct a proper search of your property, then your attorney may be able to suppress any evidence gathered from the unlawful search. You should consult with an attorney as soon as possible for discussing your rights and options. It might make the difference in whether your business remains open.