Medical-pot shops feel heat amid new Colorado laws, federal prosecution warning
July 01, 2011
John Ingold, Denver Post
Colorado's medical-marijuana industry took a battering from all sides Friday, as new laws restricting the businesses took effect and the Obama administration made its most explicit threat yet that dispensary raids are still possible.
Some dispensaries were forced to close because of their inability to meet the new state regulations, while hundreds more scrambled to comply. The day's events threw into question the future of medical-marijuana businesses in Colorado, which has both the most dispensaries per capita of any state and the country's most comprehensive rules regulating those businesses.
The tumult especially hit home at places like the Hatch Wellness Center in Highlands Ranch, where a solemn Carmen Hatch met patients
"I wanted to be here when the patients came in to explain why we're not open," Hatch said. ". . . This is about the patients. It's about people."
It was unclear how many other dispensaries were forced to close Friday because of new state laws. Before Friday, about 85 medical-marijuana businesses had either withdrawn their license applications with the state or had them rejected. Another seven had actions against them pending.
The state has about 750 dispensaries and several hundred more makers of marijuana-infused products.
Perhaps the most pressing challenge to Colorado's medical-marijuana businesses came in a U.S. Department of Justice memo. In this week's memo, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote that people "who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana and those who knowingly facilitate such activities" are in violation of federal law, regardless of their state laws.
"Such persons are subject to federal enforcement action, including potential prosecution," Cole wrote.
Any change in enforcement unclear
The memo is the clearest statement to date that the Obama administration does not believe dispensaries should have legal shelter. But it is uncertain how much the memo will change the practices of federal law enforcement officials, who have long asserted their authority to prosecute federal crimes, including marijuana distribution, regardless of state law.
"The DEA's mission in our region here is the same as it was last week," said Mike Turner, a local spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The memo, though, sent alarm through the medical-marijuana community and its supporters. Steph Sherer, executive director of the group Americans for Safe Access, called the memo "disingenuous."
"At the same time the federal government is recognizing the rights of people living with cancer and other debilitating diseases to use medical marijuana, it is also denying them the means to obtain it legally," Sherer said in a statement.
Memo a sign of feds' disapproval
U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh forwarded Cole's memo to state Attorney General John Suthers on Friday morning. Suthers said he took the memo as a sign that the federal government has not approved of the boom in the medical-marijuana industry, in Colorado and other states across the nation.
A number of medical-marijuana advocates also took aim at Colorado's cannabis laws Friday, announcing they had filed a lawsuit arguing much of the state's medical-marijuana regulatory scheme violates the state's constitution.
The lawsuit, filed in Denver District Court, challenges laws giving communities the ability to ban medical-marijuana businesses, laws limiting the number of patients small-scale caregivers can serve and rules requiring detailed recording of sales at dispensaries, among others.
"The goal was to re-establish as many rights to as many people in the state of Colorado as possible," said Kathleen Chippi, a former dispensary owner who founded a group called the Patient and Caregiver Rights Litigation Project.