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Feds Finally End 18-Year Fight Against MMJ Pioneer Lynnette Shaw

April 13, 2016

After an 18-year battle, one of the nation’s first state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries appears to have finally defeated the federal government. On Tuesday, Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, quietly withdrew an appeal of a court decision last October that prevented the government from prosecuting Lynnette Shaw, founder of the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana. 

“It is absolutely, finally over!” an exuberant Shaw said in a phone interview with Leafly on Wednesday morning.

“They have surrendered to the truth, the Constitution, Congress, and Lynnette.”

Shaw opened the Marin Alliance in 1997, a year after California voters became the first in the country to legalize medical cannabis. It’s widely believed to be the region’s first dispensary to operate legally under state law. 

The federal government sued Shaw in 1998 and has continued its effort to shut her down ever since. Shaw’s dispensary remained open until 2011, when federal prosecutors initiated a forfeiture action against her landlord. The property owner settled the case, keeping the property by evicting Shaw and her dispensary. 

Portrait of Lynnette Shaw

Portrait of Lynnette Shaw

“I couldn’t operate for four years,” she recalled. “I had agents following me, asking me to give up the names of growers and other people in the business.” 

In 2014, Congress passed the Rohrabacher–Farr Amendment, which prevented the federal government from prosecuting medical marijuana patients or dispensaries that operate in compliance with state laws. “When that passed, I called my attorney and said, ‘Maybe I can go back to work again,’” Shaw said. 

It wasn’t so simple. A U.S. District Court’s permanent injunction against Shaw and the dispensary, issued in 1998, remained in effect. When her lawyers pointed to the legal language in Rohrabacher–Farr — which was aimed at specifically preventing exactly the type of prosecution the feds were waging against Shaw — the medical marijuana pioneer finally won her case. In October 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer declared that the injunction remained in effect but the Rohrabacher–Farr rules meant the U.S. Department of Justice could no longer enforce it. 

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Haag, the U.S. attorney, appealed Breyer’s decision on Dec. 18. Which left Shaw still in legal limbo. 

Yesterday’s withdrawal of that appeal brings the case to an end. 

Shaw’s attorney, Greg Anton, told Leafly he felt the government’s decision to withdraw the appeal might have been due to fear by prosecutors that, if the 9th Circuit upheld Breyer’s decision, the ruling would become binding precedent all along the West Coast — something that would aid dispensaries in future legal spats with the feds.

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The case ultimately shuttered Shaw’s dispensary and left her bankrupt. But it never destroyed her spirit. “I’m stronger and tougher than most,” she said. This morning she was already hard at work on plans to get back into the business. 

“I’m working with a veteran’s cannabis group here in Marin,” she said, “and I’ve got plans to open a new medical marijuana alliance. I’ve got investors who’ve expressed interest and want to bet on a winning pony. I’m thrilled, I’m excited, they can’t mess with me ever again. [The federal government] is leaving me alone for the first time in 18 years.” 

“I’m just sorting through all my options today,” Shaw said. “I am one happy girl.”

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Image Source: Lynnette Shaw via Twitter