Federal Memo Casts Cloud Over Maine's Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

July 11, 2011

Josie Huang, Maine Public Broadcasting Network

The announcement comes just weeks after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a strongly-worded memo warning that dispensaries could come under federal prosecution, even in Maine and the 15 other states where medical marijuana is legal. "We find ourselves these days in a somewhat different environment that makes us confused, frightened and just perplexed on where all this is going," says Tim Smale. Smale and his wife operate the non-profit dispensary Remedy Compassion Center in Auburn.

He says they decided to get into the business in 2009, encouraged by the change in the White House, as well as a memo released by then-deputy Attorney General James Ogden in October that law enforcement would not focus on individuals complying with existing state laws on medical marijuana.

A month later, Mainers voted to expand the state's medical marijuana law to allow for dispensaries. "And we responded to that call with our time, our money and our hopes and expectations that we would be able to do this unfettered by government inteference, and only would receive government support," Smale says.

Smale says that his dispensary has been helping more than 100 patients with health issues, such as pain and prescription drug dependency, since opening in May.

But Maine U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty says that contrary to what some might think, the federal government has not releaxed its position on medical marijuana.

"There hasn't been any change in the federal law, and if they're entering in this business they know it's a violation of federal law," Delahanty says. "And nobody has ever said that the federal government--whether it'd be here in Maine or in California or anywhere in between--would not prosecute."

Delahanty says the purpose of the latest Justice Department memo, issued in late June, is not so much a departure from the 2009 memo but rather a reaffirmation that the federal government would direct its finite resources at targeting large-scale grow operations such as dispensaries, as opposed to caregivers growing marijuana for a handful of patients.

"There has been indication in places in the country that the larger the scale, the less controlled it is," Delahanty says. "And there is more opportunity for criminal elements to be involved."

Delahanty says a decision to prosecute a dispensary would be made on a case-by-case basis. He would neither confirm nor deny that there are any investigations into Maine's three dispensaries, in Auburn, Ellsworth and Frenchville.

Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for medical marijuana patients, says the latest federal actions reinforce the hostile stance the Obama administration has taken against medical marijuana in the last two years. "We've seen more than 100 raids, aggressive SWAT-style DEA raids in at least seven states, we've seen dozens of indictments," Hermes says.

Americans for Safe Access is one of the organizations that petitioned the DEA to change the scheduling for marijuana nine years ago, citing its medicinal benefits. Hermes says now that the DEA has rejected the proposal, Americans for Safe Access plans to appeal the decision. "The policy of the federal government continues to belie both political will and scientific evidence," he says. "So we're prepared to go to court and we believe we'll win."

Despite the federal government's classificaiton of marijuana as a schedule one drug, Roy E. McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, says in Maine, possession of marijuana is considered the least serious type of drug offense--less serious than having codeine.

In some cases, he says, it's not even treated as a criminal offense. " Simple possession, less than 2 1/2 ounces, is a civil offense."

Supporters of medical marijuana are backing legislation introduced last month by Congress members Barney Frank and Ron Paul that would remove marijuana from the list of federally-controlled substances. But the bill's chances have dimmed since the chair of the House Judiciary Committee has reportedly said he won't give it a hearing.

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