May 19, 2011

Pot law draws federal caution

The U.S. attorney has concerns about plans to amend Maine’s medical marijuana law and says prosecutions are possible.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine's U.S. attorney has told state lawmakers that Maine's medical marijuana law contradicts federal law, and that the U.S. Department of Justice reserves the right to prosecute Mainers who cultivate and distribute the drug, even if they have state approval.

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U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty

U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty sent a letter, dated Monday, in response to a request from the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, which recently endorsed changes to the Maine Medical Marijuana Act.

Committee members met briefly Wednesday afternoon with Maine Attorney General William Schneider to discuss legal issues. They are expected to move forward with the amendments.

"It changes nothing. We're still working on going forward with it," said Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, a committee member and the sponsor of the new medical marijuana bill.

The bill, which has not yet been considered by the Legislature, would make it optional for medical marijuana patients to register with the state, among other things. All patients must register under current law.

Delahanty said in his letter that it is intended to clarify any confusion about the federal government's position on state medical marijuana laws. Instead, it highlights the legal gray area surrounding the expansion of medical marijuana laws around the country.

U.S. attorneys in numerous other states, including Vermont and Rhode Island, have issued similar letters in recent weeks, warning state officials that medical marijuana use remains a federal crime. Parts of the letters are even identical from state to state.

Delahanty's letter says that "while the (Justice Department) does not focus its limited resources on seriously ill individuals who use marijuana as part of a medically recommended treatment regimen in compliance with state law ... we will enforce the (Controlled Substances Act) vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law."

Delahanty's letter, and those from other U.S. attorneys, says landlords and other individuals who support marijuana cultivation and distribution face potential legal action and property seizure.

Regarding the latest legislative proposal in Augusta, Delahanty wrote, "The department is concerned about recent efforts to amend Maine's Medical Marijuana Act, as the legislation involves conduct contrary to federal law and threatens the federal government's efforts to regulate controlled substances."

His letter does not specify which parts of the pending legislation are of concern. Delahanty was traveling and could not be reached Wednesday.

It's unclear why U.S. attorneys around the country appear to be taking a tougher stance against medical marijuana, although the letters have been written in response to requests from officials in each of the states, not initiated by the Justice Department, said Dan Riffle, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.

"There are a lot of people in the medical marijuana movement who are upset about it," Riffle said. "When we're talking about federal felonies, anything is going to make people nervous."

He said the tough language in the letters has not coincided with any change in enforcement or any crackdown on state-approved medical marijuana suppliers.

"I'm not aware of any dispensaries that have been raided that are complying with state laws," he said.

Rep. Sanderson said Maine's law and her pending bill are responsible, and careful not to raise concerns for federal drug agents. For example, the current bill would ban collectives that come together to cultivate and distribute the drug.

She also said that Delahanty's letter and the threat of federal crackdowns show why many medical marijuana patients don't want to be required to have their names on a state list of users.

"There are a lot of patients out there who could benefit from this form of treatment, yet they fear engaging in the use of it ... because they just don't want to be on a database," she said.

Alysia Melnik, public policy counsel with the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said Delahanty's letter probably will not affect Maine's laws, and she hopes it does not frighten patients or caregivers.

"It's very, very clear that the state of Maine continues to have a right to decide whether or not to criminalize" medical marijuana use, she said. "We've made the decision since 1999 not to criminalize patients and the people caring for them." 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

 

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