Medical marijuana: 23 dispensaries targeted by U.S. Attorney only "first wave"

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Update: U.S. Attorney John Walsh's letter to 23 medical marijuana dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools, which threatens seizure and forfeiture if they don't stop operating within 45 days, is a blow to the state's MMJ industry. And spokesman Jeff Dorschner stresses that it won't be the only one. "This is a first wave," he says, adding that there'll be "a second wave, and maybe a third wave and a fourth wave, and on down the line." As noted in our original coverage, on view below, memos written by then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Deputy Attorney General James Cole direct federal law-enforcers not to expend scarce resources prosecuting MMJ operations that follow the law in states where medical marijuana has been legalized -- and presumably, most, if not all, of the targeted centers do. However, Dorschner maintains that Walsh's action fits within the parameters of the memos, which give U.S. Attorneys what he calls "a fair amount of discretion" to establish enforcement-action priorities. And he sees dispensaries near schools as filling that bill.

"The U.S. Attorney feels strongly that protecting minors from Schedule I narcotics is important," Dorschner says. "There are studies that show the use of marijuana has increased in teenagers" since Colorado voters approved MMJ via Amendment 20 in 2000. "And there are studies that demonstrate that the use of marijuana in teenagers has impacted their cognitive abilities."

Dorschner cites the work of 2010 Westword interviewee Christian Thurstone, a Denver Health doctor and longtime critic of marijuana use among young people. Thurstone provided the U.S. Attorney's Office with the following info:

• In 2008/2009, past month marijuana use for 9-12 graders in Adams County was 19%. In 2009/2010 it was 22% and in 2010/2011 it was 30% (www.acyi.org)

• In 2008/2009, the number of school expulsions for drug use was 534. In 2009/2010 it was 753. In 2010/2011 it was 767 (http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdereval/rv2011sdiincidents.htm). This represents a 40% increase in 1 year. It is widely known that the vast majority of these expulsions are for marijuana use.

• My paper in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence clearly documents widespread diversion of medical marijuana to youth in substance treatment -- 49% report ever getting marijuana from someone with a medical marijuana license. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21565453)

• Emma.Maki...just presented a study at the annual meeting of the Rocky Mountain Public Health Society showing that 79% of teens in substance treatment "have ever used someone else's medical marijuana."

In Dorschner's view, "there's a federal interest to protect our children from this Schedule I drug that harms their ability to learn" -- one defined in statute by U.S. Code 21 Section 860. Under the heading "Distribution or manufacturing in or near schools and colleges," It states that anyone "distributing, possessing with intent to distribute, or manufacturing a controlled substance" within 1,000 feet of educational facilities is subject to "twice the maximum punishment" for a similar offense elsewhere.

But is there any evidence that any Colorado centers have been cited for providing marijuana to minors -- a fairly common occurrence when applied to alcohol purveyors like bars and liquor stores? Dorschner doesn't confirm or deny the existence of such cases. However, he says such commercial enterprises "are certainly an influence, being so close to a school" and points to Maki's study suggesting that "students are getting marijuana both out the front door and out the back door" of dispensaries.

When asked if these factors trump the Ogden and Cole memos' advice about allowing MMCs that follow state law to continue operating without encumbrance, he replies, "I think that's a safe assumption."

Because the U.S. Attorneys Office investigation into the 23 centers is ongoing, Dorschner declines to either name the businesses that have received Walsh's letters or specify their locations beyond saying that the majority are in the Denver area. In his words, this policy is "as much to protect them as it is to protect the integrity of the investigation."

And the investigations that follow. Dorschner warns against assuming that only 23 centers in Colorado are within 1,000 feet of schools. "There are more," he says. "Many more."

Page down to read our original coverage, including a redacted letter to a dispensary. Original item, 1:32 p.m. January 12: In recent weeks, the medical marijuana community has debated whether federal action might be taken against dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools -- even those following local laws. Some observers felt Colorado might be safe from such action due to its vigorous regulatory scheme. But no: The hammer has come down, by way of letters from U.S. Attorney John Walsh threatening 23 dispensaries with seizure or forfeiture if they don't close pronto.

A release from the U.S. Attorneys Office states that the "marijuana stores" in question have been formally notified that "action will be taken to seize and forfeit their property if they do not discontinue the sale and/or distribution of marijuana within 45 days from today, January 12, 2012." It adds, "Those who do not comply will be subject to potential criminal prosecution and civil enforcement actions by the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)."

The 23 operations in question, in assorted cities across Colorado (no names yet), are each said to be within 1,000 feet of a school, and therefore presumably violate Drug Free School Zone laws, even if they were grandfathered in under local or state regulations.

In a statement, Walsh says, "When the voters of Colorado passed the limited medical marijuana amendment in 2000, they could not have anticipated that their vote would be used to justify large marijuana stores located within blocks of our schools." He also maintains that "many school districts in Colorado have seen a dramatic increase in student abuse of marijuana, with resulting student suspensions and discipline."

The release also maintains that these actions are in accordance with memos written by then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Deputy Attorney General James Cole. In general, the documents direct federal law-enforcers not to expend scarce resources prosecuting MMJ operations that follow the law in states where medical marijuana has been legalized. However, prosecutions against such businesses have increased of late in states like California.

We've left messages for U.S. Attorneys Office spokesman Jeff Dorschner. When and if he gets back to us, we'll update this post. In the meantime, here's a redacted version of a sample letter to a dispensary.

U.S. Attorney John Walsh Redacted Letter to Medical Marijuana Dispensary

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More from our Marijuana archive: "Med. marijuana: Eric Holder okay with lawful MMCs, but do threats remain?"

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