By a narrow margin, Arizona voters have given their OK to legalized medical marijuana for people with chronic or debilitating diseases. The decision makes Arizona the 15th state to approve a medical marijuana law. California was the first in 1996, and 13 other states and Washington, D.C., have followed suit.
Threatened medical-marijuana crackdowns by federal prosecutors in other states have stoked fears about whether state employees, dispensary owners and others could be punished for operating under Arizona's fledgling law. Although the Justice Department said in 2009 that it would not prosecute sick people using medical marijuana, U.S. attorneys in California and Washington state have told officials there that they do intend to enforce federal laws that prohibit manufacture and distribution of the drug.
Several states have started reassessing their medical marijuana laws after stern warnings from the federal government that everyone from licensed growers to regulators could be subjected to prosecution.The ominous-sounding letters from U.S. attorneys in recent weeks have directly injected the federal government back into a debate that has for years been progressing at the state level.
Gov. Jack Markell has signed legislation making Delaware the 16th state to allow the use of medical marijuana. The new law allows people 18 and older with certain serious or debilitating conditions that could be alleviated by marijuana to possess up to six ounces of the drug. Qualifying patients would be referred to state-licensed and regulated “compassion centers,” which would be located in each of Delaware’s three counties. The centers would grow, cultivate and dispense the marijuana.
Several members of California's congressional delegation are taking their concerns about a federal crackdown on the state's medical marijuana dispensaries directly to President Barack Obama. In a bipartisan letter signed by nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the lawmakers criticized what they called an "unconscionable" multi-state effort targeting medical marijuana dispensaries. They also called for the reclassification of marijuana as a controlled substance subject to fewer federal restrictions.
Like every section that's left of the mostly vetoed medical-marijuana-reform law that passed in April, section 403 is vague, confusing, and inadequate to the task of regulating cannabis. Section 403, however, might be the single most important scrap of law to survive Gov. Chris Gregoire's veto pen. It's from this section, after all, that the City of Seattle, just three days ago, effectively legalized medical-marijuana gardens and dispensaries (city officials prefer the term "access points").
Voters narrowly approved a ballot initiative last November allowing medical marijuana in the state, but the result has been just the opposite of an orderly system of dispensing cannabis to the truly sick. Rather, police raids, surreptitious money transfers and unofficial pot clubs have followed passage of the new law, creating a chaotic situation not far removed from the black-market system that has always existed.
Colorado's medical-marijuana industry took a battering from all sides, as new laws restricting the businesses took effect and the Obama administration made its most explicit threat yet that dispensary raids are still possible. 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.
Marijuana has been approved by California, many other states and the nation's capital to treat a range of illnesses, but in a decision the federal government ruled that it has no accepted medical use and should remain classified as a highly dangerous drug like heroin. The decision by the DEA comes almost nine years after medical marijuana supporters asked the government to reclassify cannabis to take into account a growing body of worldwide research that shows its effectiveness in treating certain diseases, such as glaucoma and multiple sclerosis.
In the last few months, officials in New Jersey, as well as several other states, have said that mixed signals from the Obama administration have left them unsure whether their medical marijuana programs could draw federal prosecution of the people involved, including state employees.
President Obama came into office promising to reverse George W. Bush administration practices and elevate science over politics. He explicitly applied that principle to drug policy, an area long driven by ideology and prejudice. He promoted three evidence-based drug policies: eliminating the ban on states using federal funding for syringe exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis; reforming the racially unjust crack-cocaine sentencing disparity that punished crack offenses more harshly than powder offenses; and vowing to end years of federal interference in the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. But as a recent L.A. Times article makes dismayingly clear, the White House is putting the "science-free zone" sign back up.
A committee of the Seattle City Council grappled Wednesday with a proposed ordinance for medical-marijuana cooperatives. It would be much easier for Seattle to ban them, as some suburban cities have done — and it would be wrong. Ultimately, marijuana prohibition has to end. The next step is to defend the providers of medical patients. Seattle's job will be to set up a system of regulation that is so clearly reasonable, and supported by people here, that prosecution of licensed suppliers will be a risk the federal government chooses not to take.
The uncertainty comes after lawmakers worked for months on a plan that would help clear up the state's medical marijuana laws. The Legislature approved a plan that would have created a system to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries. But Gregoire, citing fears that state workers could face federal prosecution for participating in the licensing scheme, vetoed much of it. The remaining parts of the law allow collective marijuana grows with up to 45 plants, serving up to 10 patients.
The Seattle City Council unanimously passed rules Monday requiring that medical marijuana operations be licensed, obtain food-handling permits if they sell marijuana-infused cookies or other items, and follow all other regulations such as land use and historic preservation codes. The approach is the opposite of what several other local cities have done - imposing moratoriums on such operations. A spokesman for Mayor Mike McGinn said he expects to sign the measure quickly.
In October 2009, medical marijuana advocates celebrated a U.S. Department of Justice memo declaring that federal authorities wouldn't target the legal use of medicinal pot in states where it is permitted. The memo from Deputy U.S. Attorney General David Ogden was credited with accelerating a California medical marijuana boom, including a proliferation of dispensaries that now handle more than $1 billion in pot transactions. But last month brought a new memo from another deputy attorney general, James Cole. And this time, it is stirring industry fears of federal raids on pot dispensaries and sweeping crackdowns on large-scale medical pot cultivation.
The largest federal crackdown in the 13-year history of the state medical-marijuana law has sent Spokane's once-open medical-marijuana businesses diving deep underground. Most of the 50-some dispensaries abruptly closed. Those that remain are mostly word-of-mouth secrets. Contrast that to Seattle, where the city's embrace of medical marijuana encourages a flourishing business for storefront dispensaries, bakers, growers and lawyers. An unofficial count, based on Seattle business licenses and advertising websites, finds at least 75 storefront dispensaries open.
In the absence of government regulation, the local medical-marijuana industry increasingly is trying to professionalize the industry with such self-policing measures as "best practices" manuals, quality-control testing laboratories and training classes. After legal and political hiccups this spring and summer, the state's medical-marijuana industry is emerging reinvigorated, growing and almost entirely based in Seattle.
For the past three decades, Uncle Sam has been providing patients with some of the highest grade marijuana around as part of a little-known program that grew out of a 1976 court settlement and created the country's first legal pot smoker. The program once provided 14 people government pot. Now, there are four left.
Four California-based U.S. attorneys have announced their intent to prosecute the medical-marijuana dispensaries, growers and delivery services that are breaking state and federal laws. What constitutes violations of law, however, is murky — and may put the very existence of the dispensaries at risk. "California law says that it's essentially O.K. to grow, have and transport marijuana if you're a patient authorized by a doctor or if you're the patient's primary caregiver and if you're providing the marijuana not for profit," a spokesman for the U.S. attorney says. "Stores are violating California law because they're operating at a profit and they're not a primary caregiver. It's very clearly laid out."