Medical marijuana: Could the Justice Department arrest state MMJ employees?

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Ever since U.S. Attorney John Walsh sent a letter suggesting that parts of HB 1043, the medical marijuana cleanup bill, would likely violate U.S. law, the local MMJ community has feared a federal crackdown on the industry -- and perhaps even on state employees regulating it. Do comments made in Rhode Island yesterday by Attorney General Eric Holder clarify the situation? Not particularly, admits one advocate, but he sees reason for optimism.

According to the Providence Journal, Holder was in Rhode Island to attend an event associated with The Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence. But many of the questions at a news conference pertained to medical marijuana, which the state has recently embraced. Why? On April 29, Peter Neronha, Rhode Island's U.S. Attorney, sent Governor Lincoln Chafee a letter warning him that the feds reserved the right to prosecute individuals associated with three dispensaries chosen to sell MMJ in the state. As a result, Chafee delayed licensing the centers.

After referencing similar letters in states including Colorado, the Journal adds that U.S. Attorneys in Washington "recently said that state employees involved in the licensing or regulation of medical marijuana could be subject to arrest and prosecution. As a result, Governor Chris Gregoire vetoed key pieces of a medical-marijuana law, saying she didn't want to place state employees at risk."

When reporters asked Holder if officials in Rhode Island could face similar retribution, he avoided specifics, the Journal reports. Instead, he offered a series of variations on this quote: "We are in the process of working [on] these issues with the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island and other U.S. Attorneys across the country. My hope is that sometime in the not too distant future... it will be addressed."

Such remarks leave a lot of room for interpretation. But Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente, who's both an MMJ advocate and the co-author of proposed 2012 marijuana legalization initiatives, says, "It feels like there's some positive news in there, in that Holder and the federal government are willing to engage with state authorities and talk about potentially allowing dispensaries, and perhaps recognizing the important role they play in servicing sick patients. I think it's a more measured take than we saw from prior DEA heads or the Bush administration." "I also hope this will send a message to different communities in Colorado that this is an ongoing discussion -- that there have not been town or city employees prosecuted for issuing medical marijuana licenses and dispensary licenses, and they shouldn't consider themselves at risk for doing so," Vicente goes on. "What I'm hearing is deference to state rights, and Coloradans and government employees need to do what's best for our population and, most importantly, for our sick patients."

Is Colorado's MMJ industry, and the state apparatus that's cropped up with it, simply too far along for the feds to target, since it could potentially entail a roundup in the thousands?

"I would say Colorado leads the nation in terms of having a respected and responsible distribution system for medical marijuana," Vicente allows. "It's been okayed by our state government and signed into law by our governor, and it's been implemented very responsibly by the Department of Revenue. And I think the federal government doesn't want to pick a fight with our state government, especially when medical marijuana is really entrenched in Colorado, producing tremendous amounts of tax revenue for state and local government and helping well over 100,000 patients statewide."

Which isn't to say Vicente sees no reason for caution.

"There remains a degree of risk for patients and providers -- although I think it's a minimal risk for them, and for state employees who take part in this. I think the risk in Colorado is probably lower than anywhere else in the country by virtue of the fact that we have a comprehensive and highly regulated statewide distribution system that seems to be working well."

Of course, the passage of a legalization measure might change that dynamic. But Vicente vows that federal sabre rattling won't cause him and his partners to drop the effort.

"We certainly are pushing forward," he says. "We think regulating marijuana sales for adults 21 and over like alcohol is really the way of the future, and we think Colorado can lead our country on that path. It's just a more fiscally responsible way to approach the issue.

"Holder seems to be reflecting on this issue," he continues, "and that's what we're asking the federal government and the state government to do -- to take a hard look at marijuana policy and acknowledge that what the government has done for the past seven decades doesn't make sense. And perhaps there's a more sensible way forward."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana legalization: Brian Vicente mending fences with locals over 2012 initiatives filing."

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