The ACLU won a decisive victory for thousands of medical marijuana patients and caregivers this week when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled unanimously that cities cannot enact local bans on medical marijuana. 
The stakes could not have been higher. Several Michigan cities have tried to outlaw medical marijuana despite clear language in the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act protecting patients and caregivers from “penalty in any manner.” And when this case came before the Michigan Supreme Court, powerful interest groups filed briefs asking the court to declare that the entire medical marijuana law is “void in its entirety” and without effect.

If the court agreed with these arguments, legal protections for more than 125,000 patients and caregivers could have been wiped out with the stroke of a pen.
Fortunately, common sense and sound legal reasoning prevailed. Writing on behalf of a unanimous court, Justice Bridget McCormack’s opinion makes clear that the Medical Marihuana Act protects patients and caregivers under both state and local law, and that federal law could not be used by local authorities to undermine the state law’s protections.

The case began almost three years ago when John Ter Beek, a retired attorney and medical marijuana patient, learned that medical marijuana was being banned in Wyoming, Mich., the town where he lived. John suffers from severe and chronic pain in his legs and feet due to a number of serious medical conditions, and his primary care physician recommended that he try medical marijuana in compliance with Michigan law.

After he got his medical marijuana card, John found that medical marijuana relieves his pain without the serious side effects caused by pharmaceuticals and his quality of life vastly improved. Soon, however, Mr. Ter Beek found that his ability to use medical marijuana was threatened by a local ordinance passed by Wyoming’s City Council that bans medical marijuana throughout the city.

That’s right—even though the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act legalized medical marijuana throughout the state, a city wanted to nullify the law with a local ordinance.

Mr. Ter Beek filed a lawsuit challenging the local ordinance as a violation of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, and the ACLU agreed to take on his case. In response, Wyoming’s attorneys argued that the city does not have to comply with the state law on medical marijuana, because medical marijuana remains illegal under federal law. 

The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected Wyoming’s argument and sided with the ACLU in a unanimous decision. The Michigan Supreme Court then agreed to hear Wyoming’s appeal, and on February 6 they, too, unanimously ruled in favor of Ter Beek and the ACLU.

Michigan is one of 20 states that allow medical marijuana under state law, and public opinion polls in Michigan and throughout the country consistently show widespread support for medical marijuana.

Although federal statutes do not recognize a “medical” exception for the possession or cultivation of marijuana, the Department of Justice has a policy of not enforcing federal law against patients and caregivers who are complying with their states’ medical marijuana laws.

Given the federal government’s own stance on medical marijuana, it was particularly troubling that the city of Wyoming and special interest groups were trying to use federal law to nullify the entire Michigan Medical Marihuana Act.

The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan and a section of the State Bar of Michigan both filed briefs asking the Michigan Supreme Court to declare the entire state law void and without effect because it somehow interferes with federal law enforcement efforts.
But as the ACLU’s brief explained, there is nothing wrong with Michigan’s voters making their own decision not to prohibit medical marijuana even though there is technically no medical exception in the federal statute.

Since the founding of our republic, it has been universally understood that the 50 states are “laboratories of democracy” where new laws are tried out on a small scale with the hope that the successful laws can one day be implemented nationwide.
Fortunately, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed. The Medical Marihuana Act is safe and local bans on medical marijuana have been struck down.
By Dan Korobkin, Deputy Legal Director