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A little tidbit…

May 16, 2011

So, I promised I’d be back and I’m back!  Unfortunately, this is just a brief appearance because I’m headed out for vacation this week. I’m hoping this little post will at least give you some new information.

So, I’ve been working on a feature about these letters from U.S. Attorneys to states about their medical marijuana programs.  The story isn’t finished yet; in fact it’s undergone a huge transformation. But I thought you’d be interested in what I’m hearing so far.  Here’s a bit of the rough cut of the story-

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As you know, Governor Chafee received a letter from US Attorney Peter Neronha warning him that Rhode Island’s compassion centers are in danger of federal raids, fines, and criminal prosecution.  He responded by putting a hold on the dispensary program.

The letter our governor received is similar to warnings from U.S Attorney’s in California, Washington state, Colorado, Hawaii, Vermont, Arizona and Montana.  Advocates say the threats are a dramatic change from the Obama administration’s original stance on  medical marijuana, but the Justice Department says its policy hasn’t changed.  It all depends on how you interpret what’s called the Ogden memo.

“In 2009 the department of justice indicated that it would be a low priority for the department to prosecute anyone who was complying with state medical marijuana laws.”

Jay Rorty is the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s criminal law reform project.  He says that 2009 memo from then Deputy Attorney General David Ogden made it clear the federal government wouldn’t interfere with state sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries – the opposite of what it seems the US Attorney’s letters are doing.

“I think the ACLU takes that statement out of context.”

U.S Attorney Michael Ormsby authorized raids on dispensaries in Spokane Washington last month.  He says the federal government won’t go after patients who are sick and growing their own marijuana. But huge retail stores and giant grow sites were never part of that exception.

“The Ogden memo clearly says that commercial enterprises are to continue to be a considered target for action…we’re talking in some instances about thousands of dollars a week being generated by these enterprises.”

The ACLU’s Jay Rorty hopes U.S. Attorneys like Ormsby merely misinterpreted the Ogden memo.  The civil liberties group sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder this week, asking him to make a clear statement about leaving state sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries alone.  He hasn’t responded yet.

“I’m concerned,” Rorty says. “I’m concerned that in  2009 the department of justice didn’t wish to commit to a position and now is seeking to undermine the spread of medical marijuana laws and prevent patients from gaining access to medicine they need.”

Colorado’s Attorney General John Suthers thinks the letters are a  clear change in federal policy, but he doesn’t have a problem with that. He says watched dispensaries take over his state- often serving young people who have no clear medical need for marijuana.

“I think there’s been enough people complaining to the United States Attorney General and others about this that they’ve decided ok, the approach we were taking in the ogden memo needs some clarification cause this is getting out of hand,” he says.

Meanwhile, states are making their own choices about how seriously they should interpret the U.S. Attorney’s letters.  In Vermont, the state legislature went ahead and passed a law to create medical marijuana stores.

But the Governor of Washington vetoed legislation to regulate the state’s dispensaries after a U.S Attorney warned that state employees could be prosecuted if they implemented the program. Another letter halted Oakland California’s plans to allow large scale grow sites.

For now, Rhode Island is just waiting to see what happens next.

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