By JOHN J. MATTEO & LOGAN G. HAINE-ROBERTS
Washington, D.C., has legalized the recreational use of marijuana, allowing residents to smoke in their homes. Marijuana-smoking District residents may welcome this development, but their non-smoking neighbors and the residential communities where they live may have cause for concern. Non-smoking residents may have complaints about smoke entering their homes. Meanwhile, residential businesses catering to marijuana smoking residents may be concerned about their compliance with federal law.
While nearly half of the country has legalized marijuana use in some fashion, relatively few states have legalized recreational marijuana use. Among this small group of states, D.C.’s law is an anomaly. Unlike many of its counterparts, the District’s law does not allow the sale of marijuana. Instead, D.C. Code § 48-904.01 only provides that persons over the age of 21 can possess relatively small amounts of marijuana for personal use, give some of that marijuana to others, and cultivate a few plants in their residence for personal use. Moreover, smoking remains restricted to residences.
Longtime urban dwellers will recognize issues raised by a recent case as similar to past disagreements over cigarette smoke. Days after D.C.’s new law went into effect, a married couple filed a lawsuit in D.C. court alleging that their marijuana smoke wafting from the adjacent row house was harming their couple’s children. The judge hearing the case issued a temporary restraining order forbidding the neighbor from smoking anything in his home. The couple, both lawyers, has demanded $500,000 in damages in addition to the demand that the neighbor stop smoking.
In a past article for the Blade, we discussed the potential for conflicts such as these in the context of cigarette smoke, as well as their ramifications for condos and coop boards. Many of those steps apply to marijuana smoke as well. However, coops and condos may have more significant concerns with respect to marijuana smoke.
In short, the federal government still considers marijuana illegal. Marijuana is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I controlled substances have a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, and no accepted protocol for medical use. In short, marijuana is among the most dangerous and least valued drugs according to the federal government. For reference, other Schedule I controlled substances include heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
The problem for coops and condo associations is that, while the District has legalized marijuana, the federal government has not. The law concerning conflicting state and federal law like this is fairly complicated, but federal courts have reached similar conclusions. Courts agree that businesses associated with marijuana use are subject to civil liability and possibly criminal prosecution by the federal government. Simply put, local laws legalizing marijuana will not protect businesses from contrary federal law.
The federal policy on marijuana implicates a number of laws applicable to coops, condo association, and even other businesses. For example, the Controlled Substances Act mentions real property owners and lenders specifically. The Act makes it illegal to knowingly lease or make available any place that is then used to produce or use a controlled substance. Therefore, landlords who are aware tenants residents are growing or using marijuana on the property may open themselves to criminal prosecution. As complaints arise between owners and renters, it may be harder for property owners and associations to ignore residents’ activities which are illegal under federal law.
The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention Act raises additional legal concerns for property owners. This law allows the federal government to seize drugs and associated items, including money and real property. In the event a tenant arouses the suspicion of federal law enforcement, property owners and lenders may find their property or collateral forfeited under the law. Notably, a property owner or lender does not even need to know about the illegal activity before the federal government seizes the property. While these repercussions may seem extreme, they are not unforeseeable.
The Bank Secrecy Act may be significant for local banks even though it would be more directly applicable to marijuana-based businesses, which remain largely illegal in D.C. Generally, the Act obligates banks to assist the federal government in policing criminal activity by watching for suspicious activity in clients’ transactions and filing reports as necessary. Banks need some understanding of their clients’ money to file these reports. Naturally, lending or holding money banks know to be associated with marijuana may expose them to liability and prosecution under the Act. If a bank somehow became aware that a significant portion of its’ clients money was associated with marijuana, it would have additional responsibilities and concerns under this Act.
Federal agencies have tried to placate businesses concerned about compliance with these laws. The Department of Justice has issued two memos discussing legalized marijuana. The memos suggest that enforcement by federal authorities may be less vigorous in these states, but the memos also reiterate that marijuana is illegal and exposes users and businesses to prosecution. The Treasury has acted similarly to address banks concerns about making loans to marijuana based-businesses. Specifically, Treasury policy now requires banks to file an additional form under the Bank Secrecy Act to address these issues. However, despite these and other steps by federal agencies, the general consensus is that the federal government has done little to clarify the operation of local and federal laws and even less to address business concerns. Consequently, local coops, banks, and businesses now face the unenviable task of trying to remain compliant with federal law while their clients make use of D.C.’s new law.
If a cooperative apartment or condominium community is experiencing an increasing number of complaints regarding marijuana smells, smoke, or perhaps related criminal activity and if remediation efforts have been unsuccessful, the Board should consider a building-wide smoking ban, and perhaps a ban on odiferous plants. Smoking marijuana is legal under state law, but as has been seen in the case of the D.C. temporary-restraining order, it does not make it less of a nuisance. Owners and boards should begin preparing for these conflicts now by seeking legal advice early. Bear in mind also, that Congress has a significant level of control over District issues, but has not, as of yet, intervened directly on this. Consequently, the situation could change rapidly.
These are just a few of the potential issues that are on the horizon given D.C.’s new law. Others include the effect of the law on records and drug testing in the workplace. These and other issues are certain to find their way to the courts as potential plaintiffs use the law as a defense to adverse actions from their communities and employers.
This is part of a series of articles by Jackson & Campbell on legal issues of interest to the LBGT community. Jackson & Campbell is a full-service law firm based in Washington with offices in Maryland and Virginia. If you have any questions, contact John J. Matteo at 202-457-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have any questions regarding our firm, contact Don Uttrich, who chairs our Diversity Committee, at 202-457-4266 or email@example.com.
The contents of this article are intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.