Marijuana: U.S. Attorney "not bluffing" about seizing dispensaries near schools

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Attorney Rob Corry unwittingly provided U.S. Attorney John Walsh with a make-my-day moment. Corry recently told 9News that seizure letters sent to 23 dispensaries near schools were a "colossal bluff." During a round of media interviews, Walsh begged to differ. "We are not bluffing," he says. "We sent warning letters to give these facilities an opportunity to shut down. If they don't, they will face legal enforcement action from us. Promptly."

U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Jeff Dorschner says the dispensaries that received letters are within 1,000 feet of schools as measured from the shop's front door to the property line of the educational facility -- the same measurement used by the City of Denver, according to attorney Warren Edson, who believed the office was employing a property-line-to-property-line standard. And Walsh believes the shut-down threat is justified under federal law, which sees all marijuana as illegal, regardless of state authorizations for medical use.

"By statute, Congress has directed us to protect the areas around schools as a drug-free zone," he says. "And specifically, Congress has established enhanced penalties within 1,000 feet of schools."

As such, the office's action shouldn't be considered a usurpation of local zoning measures, as argued by National Cannabis Industry Association executive director Aaron Smith. "This is not a question of local zoning," Walsh stresses. "It's a question of important federal anti-drug-trafficking enforcement -- and we're enforcing it."

While the majority of dispensaries targeted thus far are in the Denver area, Walsh makes it clear that "our intention is for warning letters of this kind to go out to all dispensaries or marijuana cultivation facilities within 1,000 feet of schools in the entire state of Colorado."

Yes, that means grows will be targeted along with dispensaries -- and at this point, Walsh doesn't know how many there'll be of either. In his words, "We're working on identifying those facilities now."

Is it possible that future letters could be sent to dispensaries within 1,000 feet of parks, as has happened in California? "In respect to expanding, we don't normally discuss future enforcement matters," Walsh says. "Frankly, we're considering other important federal interests, but we're not in a position to disclose where that goes." Besides, "there are quite a few facilities within 1,000 feet of schools. That is our focus, and it will take us a while to get through that."

The crackdown has renewed fears among medical marijuana patients, some of whom fear that by providing Colorado's Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division with details of their cannabis use, they've essentially provided the government with all the information they need to be convicted of a federal crime. But while Walsh confirms that "we have a good working relationship with the state Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division folks" (he declines to provide more details), he shows no appetite for going after individuals or their personal caregivers, as differentiated from dispensaries.

Page down to continue reading our interview with U.S. Attorney John Walsh. "We have received clear guidance from the Justice Department in Washington" -- by way of memos written by then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Deputy Attorney General James Cole -- "that it is generally not a good use of federal resources to be investigating and prosecuting sick people who are using marijuana under a state medical marijuana law, or their immediate caregivers," he allows. "I hope the public understands that's not an area where we're going to focus our resources. At least in recent decades, the federal government has never focused its efforts on marijuana users, especially in the medical context."

Other observers see the seizure letters as the first step in a larger plan to eliminate retail medical marijuana operations as a whole, by incrementally narrowing entrepreneurs' opportunity to do business until the entire industry collapses. If that's the case, Walsh won't go there.

"I can't speak for the entire department other than to go back to the Ogden and Cole memos," he says. "That's the guidance we've received from the department. Ultimate goals and things of that sort are not something we've been given guidance on."

What's he say to the suggestion that Colorado's vigorous set of state regulations make it unnecessary for federal intervention here -- and the fact that it's happening anyway means the Justice Department is taking a cookie-cutter tack that ignores the efforts of responsible state officials?

"The various U.S. Attorneys offices have discretion to take into account circumstances on the ground in their respective states in deciding what enforcement action to take," Walsh replies. "We pay attention to circumstances on the ground, but keep in mind important federal interests -- and that's what we're doing. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach."

As for how long the current action may go on, Walsh says, "I don't want to guess. Even if I tried to estimate, there's no way of knowing how accurate it would be. But we're still working on it now."

And they're not bluffing.

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More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Title board signs off on Relief for the Possession of Cannabis Act, latest pot measure."

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