Marijuana: DA Stan Garnett defends telling feds to back off Boulder MMCs

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Update:This week, Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney John Walsh asking him not to send seizure threats to any Boulder medical marijuana dispensaries conforming to state and local land use regulations. When asked about the note, Walsh's spokesman said his boss would respond directly to Garnett -- the implication being that the U.S. Attorney wasn't thrilled about this communique, on view below along with our earlier coverage, having been made public. But Garnett has no regrets.

"I've been in conversation with John's office for quite a while about these issues," he points out, referring to letters ordering dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools to shut down by a certain date or risk having the feds take the property and everything on it. "And as I say in the letter, I have enormous respect for John. I think he's a great prosecutor and a great guy, and he has a great staff. But I've also had a lot of discussions with municipal leadership in Boulder County, and they've been frustrated by the uncertainty of where they stand in regard to this issue. And since the U.S. Attorney's Office has not hesitated to be quite public about its position, I thought it was appropriate to respond as I did on the issue, which I see as an issue of local control."

Regarding possible displeasure on the part of Walsh and company that he released his letter to the media, Garnett stresses that "his office is the one that's decided this is a matter that needs to be played out in public. They've repeatedly talked about it and repeatedly threatened action against dispensaries. So I felt a public response was appropriate.

"One of the issues I find most interesting is the justification they use that this is somehow about protecting children," he goes on. "I served on the Boulder school board for eight years, and in my district, between Boulder and St. Vrain Valley, we have two of the best school boards in the United States by all objective measure. I feel the communities are fully capable of determining what they need to do to protect children, and they do a pretty good job of it."

Moreover, Garnett stresses that "I have not seen evidence the dispensary situation has made the marijuana problem worse at our schools. When I first got on the school board in 1997, there was marijuana throughout our high schools and our middle schools. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to manage that issue, and that was several years before Amendment 20," the measure that legalized medical marijuana in Colorado, "and many years before dispensaries like we see today."

Indeed, Garnett believes the MMJ retail system currently in place "actually makes it easier to manage the issue, because land use regulation is a much more efficient way to control issues in the community than the haphazard criminal justice process. In a criminal case, for example, a defendant has all the due process rights provided by the constitution, whereas in a land use case, a municipality simply has to say, 'You're violating our code.' And that makes it easier to control."

In short, Garnett has "not seen the horror stories people predicted would come to pass" at the outset of the medical marijuana boom in Boulder and elsewhere in Colorado. As such, the question for him becomes "how do you manage a reality in a community? And the reality is that marijuana is present. So what I'm basically saying is, from a prosecution priorities perspective, trying to manage it through the criminal justice system doesn't work very well. We need to focus on other things, where we can have a real impact on public safety."

At this writing, Garnett has not heard from the U.S. Attorney's Office in response to his letter. However, he points out that "I will be at a meeting tomorrow, and I anticipate that John will be there. I look forward to having a conversation with him."

Page down for our earlier coverage, including the full text of Stan Garnett's letter to John Walsh: Original post, 2:39p.m. March 14: In 2009, Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett said he wanted to be the state's most progressive DA regarding medical marijuana, and he accepted MMJ industry support during his failed effort to defeat state Attorney General John Suthers. Unsurprisingly, then, he's no fan of U.S. Attorney John Walsh's seizure letters to MMCs near schools -- a point he stresses in his own letter to Walsh, which asks the feds to back off Boulder dispensaries. Read it below.

In the missive, dated March 13, Garnett notes that he's seen "the law of medical marijuana and the dispensary business develop in Colorado ever since passage of Amendment 20," and in his view, "the industry has developed and adapted to Colorado's statutory and local land use and regulatory schemes." The result is "a maturing business that pays substantial tax revenue" and fits "within the fabric of this community."

As such, Garnett continues, he has "watched with some interest as the United States government, the United States Department of Justice and the United States Attorney's Office have issued repeated and sometimes conflicting messages about medical marijuana over the last three years, culminating in the recent comments in the March 7, 2012 Denver Post of the new SAC of DEA, Barbara Roach." For one thing, Roach told the Post she was looking to move into a community that had banned MMJ retail operations.

In Garnett's opinion, "the resources of the United States Attorney's Office should be focused elsewhere: on terrorism, serious economic crime, organized crime and serious drug dealing (involving significant amounts of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine). I can see no legitimate basis in this judicial district to focus the resources of the United States government on the medical marijuana dispensaries that are otherwise compliant with Colorado law or local regulation.

"Accordingly...I am urging you to exercise your prosecutorial discretion to back away from the threatened criminal prosecution of medical marijuana dispensaries in Boulder County if they are compliant with state law and local land use regulations," he goes on, adding, "In my opinion, such prosecution would serve no practical purpose, would expend important resources and would be very disruptive to communities who have spent significant time and resources exercising their right of local control to balance the competing issues around medical marijuana."

We've put in a call to Garnett on this issue; if and when he responds, we'll update this post. As for the U.S. Attorney's Office, spokesman Jeff Dorschner says, "the U.S. Attorney received his letter late last night and is in the process of reviewing it. At the appropriate time, the U.S. Attorney will respond directly back to the district attorney."

Dorschner points out that "our office has always had a positive working relationship with Garnett." But he gives no hint that the letter may result in a change of policy. "Our office continues to look at the marijuana stores that are going to be the subject of phase two of this initiative," he emphasizes. "Those letters will likely be going out soon."

Here's the complete text of Garnett's letter to U.S. Attorney John Walsh.

Stan Garnett Letter to US Attorney John Walsh

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More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana seizure letters: 22 shops shut, five enforcement actions."

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