AG: NM State workers could face charges for marijuana law

August 09, 2007

Deborah Baker, Associated Press

The state Department of Health and its employees could face federal prosecution for implementing New Mexico’s new medical-marijuana law, the attorney general has cautioned.

And they wouldn’t get any help from the attorney general: That office isn’t authorized to defend state workers in criminal cases, according to a letter released Thursday.

New Mexico as of July 1 has a medical-marijuana program run by the state Department of Health that not only legalizes the use of marijuana by certain patients but provides for state-licensed production and distribution of the drug.

Thus far, 48 patients have applied for the program, and half have been approved, according to the department. Seven applicants were rejected, and 17 have been asked to provide more information.

The approved patients get temporary certificates allowing them to possess a three-month supply of marijuana, including plants.

The law requires the department to issue rules by Oct. 1 for licensing producers and developing a distribution system.

That provision is unique among the dozen states that have legalized medical marijuana, and department officials asked the attorney general at the end of May to assess their exposure to prosecution.

In a letter dated Aug. 6, lawyers in Attorney General Gary King’s office said the department and its employees or representatives “may be subject to federal prosecution for implementing the Compassionate Use Act.”

There was no immediate reaction from the department.

“We’ve just received the letter, and we’re going to discuss what our next step will be,” said spokeswoman Deborah Busemeyer.

The letter said the U.S. Supreme Court has concluded the manufacture and distribution of marijuana — even for medical use — is illegal, and federal authorities have prosecuted citizens for growing medical marijuana.

While medical-marijuana proponents might argue that federal authorities have shown little enthusiasm for prosecuting patients — and no interest in prosecuting states for setting up registries and identification card programs — the department or its employees could be prosecuted, the letter said.

“The production and distribution of marijuana is still a crime at the federal level ... and that is something that state laws can’t change,” said Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“Whether or not a case is brought is up to the U.S. attorney and the Department of Justice,” he said.

Two weeks ago, federal agents raided 10 medical-marijuana clinics in Los Angeles, arresting clinic owners and managers but not patients.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says the clinics are distribution points for illegal drugs.

White House drug czar John Walters criticized Gov. Bill Richardson in April for signing the bill, calling it irresponsible and saying it would worsen the state’s illegal drug use problem.

Walters also claimed Richardson — who is running for the Democratic nomination for president — was trying to curry the favor of wealthy marijuana-legalization advocates.

The law requires the Health Department to develop a medical-marijuana distribution system with production facilities “within New Mexico housed on secure grounds and operated by licensed producers.”

Distribution of marijuana would take place at locations designated by the department.

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