Last week, U.S. Attorney John Walsh sent letters to 23 medical marijuana dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools, threatening seizure if they don't close by next month -- an act that caused centers to scramble for scarce new locations and made some owners consider shutting down for good. Against this backdrop, Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, accuses the Obama administration of violating its own dictates.
"It doesn't make sense to me," Smith says about Walsh's decision to target the operations. After all, most if not all of the MMCs in question are presumably following Colorado law, as well as city and/or county ordinances -- and memos written by then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Deputy Attorney General James Cole advise federal law-enforcers not to expend scarce resources prosecuting MMJ operations that are legal by the standard of states where medical marijuana has been authorized.
"In terms of the 1,000-foot rule" enacted by most Colorado communities that allow dispensaries, "we have a number of centers that are grandfathered in -- approved by local jurisdictions where they're operating," Smith continues. "And centers in compliance with city and state laws should be left alone. That was the directive in the Ogden memo, and that's what we heard Attorney General Eric Holder say in a congressional committee just a few weeks ago.
"Bottom line, the federal government is getting between a city's ability to zone medical marijuana centers -- and it's not a function of the federal government to enforce zoning rules. For example, if the City of Denver determines that these facilities are acceptable regardless of their proximity to a school, that's the city's prerogative -- and with any other industry, that's how the federal government operates. I can't think of any other instance where the federal government has decided to assert zoning rules in relation to an industry. Imagine if they came in and told a city where a pharmacy had to operate."
Thus far, the U.S. Attorney's action has been limited in scope -- but the office's spokesman, Jeff Dorschner, calls the initial mailing the "first wave" of an enforcement action that is expected to produce many sequels. As such, Smith confirms that "just as any business person would be, folks are really concerned they may have to close down, lay off employees and put untold numbers of Coloradans into unemployment lines. In an economy like this, the last thing we need to do is close down an industry and lose jobs. And it would push patients into the black market to get their medicine."
How is the NCIA responding?
"We are certainly encouraging our constituents to put significant pressure on Eric Holder and the White House, and on President Obama, to live up to his campaign promises, promises made after the election and, frankly, the assurance Mr. Holder gave in Congress last month. They need to back off and allow the states to run their own affairs, and if they don't, I think they'll see significant public backlash, just as they did in California," where the Obama administration's war on weed has been even more sweeping. "I expect to see state officials and local community leaders speaking out against federal activity -- and I expect to see the federal government acknowledgement that they overreached here. It's certainly not in the interest of public safety, not to mention their political interest."
Is this a veiled threat to withhold support to Obama in the run-up to the 2012 election? It doesn't take much reading between the lines to answer that question.
Page down to continue reading our interview with Smith.
"The President has certainly turned off his base by taking these actions," Smith maintains. "The medical cannabis community were big Obama fundraisers, Obama activists, really putting in a lot of work on the campaign in 2008 -- and we're certainly not seeing that anymore.
"But more important to the campaign, upwards of 80 percent of America supports medical marijuana. It cuts across the demographic and political lines. And it really makes no sense to try to assail medical marijuana laws in states like Colorado and California, where they were supported by huge margins. It's baffled me for years that this is even a debate. It's hard to think of anything else that has 80 percent national support, but somehow, this is still considered controversial."
Would the NCIA consider funding a legal challenge to the U.S. Attorney's actions?
"It's too soon to say what our strategy might be," Smith replies. "Right now, we haven't seen all of the centers that have been affected or received letters. It's premature to begin talking about that until we see what all the facts are and how things unfold."
At the same time, Smith says the NCIA wouldn't rule out such an approach, particularly given concerns about patient access.
"If a medical marijuana center in a rural community is forced to close its doors, that means potentially that any patient for miles would be forced to turn to the black market to obtain their medicine, rather than being able to go through a safe, regulated facility. So what the Obama administration is doing is endorsing black market commerce and driving sick and injured people away from what we've already proven is a better model -- the regulated model in Colorado."
Follow and like the Michael Roberts/Westword Facebook page.
More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana: Jared Polis stars in National Cannabis Industry Association event (PHOTOS)."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.