Did a California pot dispensary really just defeat the federal government in court?

YES, IT DID. Last week, a federal judge smacked down the US Department of Justice (DOJ) for trying to shutter a medical marijuana dispensary in Fairfax, California. It was quite a surprise. The case sets a helpful precedent against DOJ enforcement actions going forward.

The litigation has been going on since 1998, the year that Google was founded and Secretary Clinton's husband was impeached. It all started when DOJ sued several medical marijuana dispensaries, including the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana (MAMM), for distributing pot in violation of federal law.

Note that what these dispensaries were doing was undisputedly legal at the time under California law, and remains so today. In fact, the Fairfax mayor has stated in letters and court documents that MAMM in particular is a "model business," which has observed its local permit to a T. But the feds were having none of that.

Over the past 17 years, the case had many twists and turns. In 2002, the court issued a permanent injunction against MAMM, which means that the dispensary was ordered to stop distributing pot. However, MAMM ignored the injunction and continued to operate. Finally, in 2011, DOJ issued cease-and-desist letters to MAMM and other dispensaries. MAMM ignored these too, so DOJ began forfeiture proceedings in which it seized assets of MAMM and related parties. Eventually, the dispensary's landlord settled with DOJ, which meant that MAMM was out of plays, and, subsequently, homeless.

For a little while there, nothing happened. Then, last December, Congress quietly passed a law preventing DOJ from spending money "to prevent states from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana." DOJ considered this, but decided that because the law technically did not prevent it from "enforcing" federal law, it could continue to pillage dispensaries.

The new law's sponsors disagreed, and MAMM asked the court to revisit the injunction that the dispensary had previously always ignored. Most legal observers thought that MAMM had little chance of winning. However, Judge Charles Breyer found DOJ's reading of the new law "tortured" and said the injunction could be enforced only if MAMM were to violate state law. The dispensary is not going to do that.

Over the years, pot businesses have been annihilated when it comes to government litigation, so this was quite a coup for an industry that suddenly has all sorts of momentum. You can be certain that every medical marijuana defendant in the country currently facing federal enforcement will cite Judge Breyer's ruling. You can be nearly as certain that DOJ will appeal. The case has only been going on for 17 years.