Medical Marijuana Community Decries Federal Threats Against Public Officials

July 01, 2011
Washington, DC -- Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole issued a controversial memorandum Wednesday in an apparent attempt to clarify federal policy with regard to medical marijuana. Calling marijuana "a dangerous drug," Cole's memo threatened enforcement actions against "Persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities," including local and state officials. The memo further underscored that "State laws or local ordinances are not a defense to civil or criminal enforcement of federal law."

Medical marijuana advocates are decrying this new policy as a retreat from President Obama's pledge that he was "not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws," and from the spirit of a previous memo issued by Deputy Attorney General David Ogden in October 2009. "It is disingenuous of the Obama Administration to say it is not attacking patients while obstructing the implementation of local and state medical marijuana laws," said Steph Sherer, Executive Director of Americans for Safe Access, the country's largest medical marijuana advocacy group. "The president is using intimidation tactics to stop elected officials from serving their constituents, thereby pushing patients into the illicit market."

Despite the wording of the Ogden memo that federal resources should not be used for "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana," Cole claimed that his memo was consistent with that of his predecessor. However, patient advocates are questioning what they call glaring inconsistencies. "How are federal threats against local and state officials who are adopting public health measures warranted at any time, let alone at a time of fiscal constraint?" asked Sherer. The Cole memo rejects attempts by state governments to design laws under which medical marijuana providers could be in "clear and unambiguous compliance."

Over the past few weeks, U.S. Attorneys have sent letters threatening public officials from at least 10 states with criminal prosecution if they implement laws regulating the production and distribution of medical marijuana. The Cole memo appeared to be an attempt to reinforce those threats. "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," continued Sherer.

Unwilling to accept this level of hostility from the federal government, patient advocates are putting energy behind a number of initiatives, including a pending petition to reschedule marijuana from its current status as a drug with no medical value, and a number of Congressional bills that aim to reduce federal restrictions on how states implement their own medical marijuana laws. "Until states and localities have the ability to adopt and enforce their own laws regarding the production and distribution of medical cannabis, federal interference will continue to undermine the rights of the very patients the Justice Department purports to recognize," emphasized Sherer.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana for patients with physician approval. Laws regulating dispensaries exist in 10 states -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont -- but some states have suspended those laws as a result of federal intimidation. Notably, the states of Vermont and Delaware recently stood up to federal threats and defied such intimidation by passing laws licensing the distribution of medical marijuana.

Further information:
DOJ memorandum from June 29, 2011: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/James_Cole_memo_06_29_2011.pdf
DOJ memorandum from October , 2009: http://blogs.usdoj.gov/blog/archives/192

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