Two medical marijuana providers have accused the U.S. government of civil rights violations in what may be the first lawsuit of its kind in response to a federal crackdown on pot operations across the nation.
The owners of Montana Caregivers Association and MCM Caregivers claim federal raids on pot businesses across Montana in March were unconstitutional, exceeded the government's authority and pre-empted the state's medical marijuana law.
Since then, federal agents have raided two Washington state dispensaries, and federal prosecutors have sent letters of warning to leaders in most of the 15 states with medical marijuana laws.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Missoula against the government, Department of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Attorney for Montana Michael Cotter.
The plaintiffs claim the intent of the raids was to shut down the medical pot industry.
"The federal government has made clear its intent to threaten and eventually eliminate any business or enterprise related to the medical use of marijuana," Christopher Williams of the Montana Caregivers Association and Randy Leibenguth of MCM Caregivers claimed in the lawsuit.
The Department of Justice did not comment when contacted Wednesday. Cotter spokeswoman Jessica Fehr also declined comment, saying the U.S. attorney's office had not been served with the lawsuit.
New Mexico attorney Paul Livingston, who is representing the plaintiffs, believes this is the first constitutional challenge of the government's actions.
"I'm surprised nobody's raised a 10th Amendment challenge," Livingston said. "This is a process going on in all the states that have approved medical marijuana. They're trying to set limits."
The 10th Amendment says powers not delegated to the U.S. or prohibited by the Constitution are reserved to the states. Current Montana law says a marijuana provider can't be arrested, prosecuted or penalized if they do not exceed the amount of pot they are allowed to keep per patient.
Federal agents executed 26 search warrants against pot businesses in Montana on March 14, seizing drugs, cash, weapons and vehicles in what Cotter called part of a drug-trafficking investigation. No charges have been filed, and Cotter's office has since refused to comment on the investigation.
Cotter's warning letter to Montana legislative leaders said the Department of Justice considers it a priority to prosecute anybody involved in the trade of any illegal drugs. But the letter added the department would not pursue prosecution of seriously ill individuals who follow state law in using medical marijuana
That and similar letters issued by Cotter's counterparts have caused several states to reassess their laws.
Washington's governor recently vetoed a law to create licensed dispensaries. New Jersey has asked for guidance from the Department of Justice before implementing its new law.
Montana lawmakers passed a bill that would effectively ban marijuana businesses by making it illegal to charge for marijuana and limiting the number of patients per provider.
Medical marijuana advocates in the state have organized protests such as one held Wednesday on the steps of the state Capitol. A couple dozen protesters waved signs at passing cars, urging the governor to veto the bill.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer has said he will let the bill become law without his signature later this week.
Protesters also are planning a petition drive in which they hope to gather enough signatures to block the bill from becoming law.
In the lawsuit, Williams and Leibenguth claim that because the U.S. Constitution does not expressly grant the government powers over medical marijuana, the government violated the 10th Amendment to overrule Montana's medical marijuana laws.
The plaintiffs are asking Judge Donald Molloy to declare the raids unconstitutional and prevent the government from threatening, interfering or prosecuting them for activities allowed under state law.
They are also asking to be compensated for damages, but do not specify an amount.