D.C. Medical Marijuana Spared Federal Threats, For Now

May 30, 2011

Martin Austermuhle, DCist

In recent weeks, a number of U.S. Attorneys have sent letters to officials in states with medical marijuana programs to remind them that no matter what their local legislatures say, the federal government still considers marijuana an illegal drug. The District, however, has so far been spared the unwanted federal attention for its nascent medical marijuana program.

As NPR reported over the weekend, the letters have

org/2011/05/28/136726993/buzz-kill-federal-warnings-hit-medical-pot-boom'>forced some states to put their programs on hold for fear of federal raids of state-sanctioned cultivation centers and dispensaries. Arizona, which is currently implementing a voter-approved program, went so far as to file a lawsuit against the Department of Justice late last week seeking to clarify how federal and state interests are balanced in the implementation of medical marijuana programs.

The conflict dates back to late 2009, when the Obama administration indicated that it wouldn't prioritize prosecuting individuals who grow or use medical marijuana according to local state laws. Each U.S. Attorney has discretion in how the policy is implemented, though, and at least nine have recently sent letters to states with medical marijuana programs to warn them that they're running the risk of violating federal law.

The U.S. Attorney responsible for the District, Ron Machen, hasn't yet commented or sent a letter on the District's program, though his office said today that it remains "under review."

The letters are a sobering reminder for anyone looking to get into the medical marijuana business in the District -- no matter what local voters and legislators say, it's still illegal. That the District hasn't yet gotten a letter could well be because Machen doesn't much care to waste resources on busting a small and restrictive program, but his successors might feel differently.

One saving grace is that the 95-plant limit imposed on each of the District's 10 cultivation centers would spare their proprietors a mandatory five-year jail term if the feds busted them. (The mandatory minimum kicks in at 100 plants.) On the downside, the District is one of the only jurisdictions that doesn't allow home cultivation, so if any raids did eventually happen, the entire program would fall apart.

Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, told DCist that anyone looking to run one of the District's five dispensaries or 10 cultivation centers will be committing what she termed "federal civil disobedience."

"It's a very serious commitment, coming from a very compassionate place," she said of medical marijuana proponents and purveyors. She blamed the letters on a number of U.S. Attorneys "going rogue" and expressed frustration that the Department of Justice has not sought to clarify its 2009 position.



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