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Federal prosecutors this week dropped a long-fought legal battle against a pioneering North Coast medical marijuana dispensary, clearing the way for it and other dispensaries in the region to operate without government interference.

Santa Rosa attorney Greg Anton represented Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Fairfax, the state’s first licensed dispensary, after it was forced to close in 2011.

Dispensary owner Lynette Shaw sued in federal court, citing a new law by a Southern California congressman that prohibits the government from spending money to prosecute dispensaries operating in compliance with state law.

In October, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer sided with Shaw, modifying an injunction and issuing a scathing critique of the Justice Department’s position, which he said “tortures the language of the law.” Federal prosecutors appealed in December to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

But earlier this month, prosecutors made an about-face, asking to withdraw the appeal before it could be heard. The court granted the request Tuesday, allowing Judge Breyer’s original ruling to stand.

Anton said the case sets a precedent for state-licensed pot distributors in Northern California who might come under federal government scrutiny, while at the same time becoming “persuasive authority” throughout the country.

“This is a big decision because it came from Washington,” Anton said. “It’s a decision from the Justice Department to not fight Congress and back off on prosecution of cannabis activities in states that have chosen to legalize.”

It was not clear why the government dropped its appeal, although Anton speculated it wished to avoid a potential landmark ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think they dropped the case because it really had no merit,” Anton said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas did not respond to a phone call or email Wednesday seeking comment.

Anton said the decision follows a recent announcement from the Drug Enforcement Administration that it is planning to take marijuana off a list of the most dangerous drugs that includes heroin.

It also comes as state voters prepare for a momentous November vote to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

“No one has been against this other than the administration,” Anton said.

“Polls show 85 percent of the people are in favor of legalizing medical marijuana. So who’s against it? That’s the big question.”

Shaw, who is known as the godmother of medical marijuana dispensaries in California, opened her doors in 1997, a year after voters approved marijuana for medical use.

She ran it for 14 years, surviving a federal injunction to close it and serving as a model for other legal operations around the state.

Then in 2011, Justice Department officials threatened to confiscate the property from her landlord so she agreed to close, Anton said.

A new law taking effect in January 2015 from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Coronado, shifted the legal landscape once again. Signed by President Obama, it prevents the government from spending money to shut down licensed dispensaries operating within state law. The law names 40 other states and the District of Columbia, Anton said.

Shaw’s suit argued that the government was violating its own law, and Judge Breyer, the brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, agreed.

His ruling instructs federal prosecutors to “back off,” Anton said, not-so-subtly reminding them “the law says what it says.”

Just how far-reaching the ruling is remains to be seen.

“Technically, it’s the law in Northern California under the jurisdiction of Breyer’s court,” Anton said. “As far as precedent, it’s the only case like this. It’s the first ruling that’s happened like this. It will be cited all over the country.”

North Coast dispensary owners who have been watching the case were pleased to hear the outcome.

John Sugg, founder of Sonoma Patient Group dispensary on Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa, said it could help dispensaries in Mendocino County and Berkeley where the government still appears to be pressing its cases.

“It’s really good news for Northern California and the state in general,” Sugg said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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