No One is Outside of Federal Marijuana Laws, U.S. Says

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette / 2010 photo by WILLIAM ARCHIE/Detroit Free Press

Large-scale pot operators must be stopped, and even smaller-scale users and distributors are not shielded from prosecution, the U.S. says.

Large-scale pot operators must be stopped, and even smaller-scale users and distributors are not shielded from prosecution, the U.S. says. / 2010 photo by WILLIAM ARCHIE/Detroit Free Press

A memo from the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington says state laws allowing medical marijuana opened the door to abuses and calls for legally targeting “large-scale, privately operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers” as well as distribution operations known as dispensaries.

The memo — which arrived June 29 in the e-mail inboxes of U.S. attorneys nationwide, including the Detroit office — says that no patient or other user is shielded from federal prosecution by state laws. The memo comes after Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette unleashed a salvo last week, saying there was widespread lawbreaking linked to medical marijuana in Michigan.

The federal memo has medical marijuana advocates feeling betrayed by the Obama administration, which had been linked with hopes for leniency in the war on drugs.

“The $64,000 question is, are the U.S. district attorneys in offices across the country really going to go after these dispensaries and grow operations? We’ll have to see,” said Art Cotter, chairman of the medical marijuana committee for the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

On Thursday, about two dozen operators of compassion centers — where patients use the drug — met near Flint to discuss the new threats to access.

“We now we have a double threat because of this (federal memo) and our own attorney general,” Rick Thompson, editor of Oak Park-based Michigan Medical Marijuana Magazine, said from the meeting.

U.S. pushes for strict pot law enforcement

Just when medical marijuana users are protesting plans for tighter restrictions on the drug in Michigan, a memo from federal authorities in Washington is asking for tougher enforcement.

The memo, sent from the U.S. Department of Justice to U.S. attorneys and being circulated this week among Michigan’s county prosecutors and sheriffs, is exactly what many in Michigan law enforcement said they were waiting for — a green light to stamp out what they say is proliferating drug abuse and lawbreaking under the cover of medical marijuana.

According to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the memo shows that the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act — passed by 63% of voters in 2008 — is entirely pre-empted by federal drug law.

“We are making that case as we defend Livonia’s commonsense zoning ordinance in court,” Schuette spokeswoman Joy Yearout said.

The Livonia ordinance amounts to a total ban on medical marijuana cultivation and use in the city, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union have said in the case.

Defense attorneys, operators of medical marijuana facilities, such as compassion clubs, and medical marijuana users decried the memo as a step backward.

“This is an attack on the patient community,” said Kristen Ford, field director for the nonprofit Americans for Safe Access, based in Washington, D.C.

Rick Thompson, editor of the Oak Park-based Michigan Medical Marijuana Magazine, said Thursday: “All of us are more concerned now with federal intrusion.”

State law no shield

The Justice Department memo says, without naming specific states, that “planned facilities have revenue projections of millions of dollars, based on the cultivation of tens of thousands of cannabis plants.”

Such large-scale operators must be stopped, and even smaller-scale users and distributors are not shielded from federal prosecution, “even where those activities purport to comply with state law,” says the memo signed by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole. Some say the memo makes clear that the Obama administration, contrary to the sense of a 2009 memo, opposes giving leniency to medical marijuana users.

“There was this feeling that the local police and prosecutors were on their own” for enforcing drug laws against people claiming a medical need for pot, Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith said Thursday.

“Now, I think we’re all going to see that the abuses have to stop at all levels. When this law passed in Michigan, every person who voted for it had good intentions. But what we’ve seen is that for every one person who uses medical marijuana responsibly, someone else is abusing it and profiting from it,” Smith said.

Federal authorities are not changing their policy but instead are trying to correct a misreading of their stance, Berrien County Prosecutor Art Cotter said. Law enforcers and marijuana users alike misinterpreted an October 2009 memo from the Justice Department that “seemed to suggest, ‘Don’t go after medical marijuana patients,’ ” Cotter said. He chairs the medical marijuana committee for the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

“People read into that the idea that, as long as something complied with state law, the feds would not get involved. Now, this new memo is saying, no, dispensaries and large grow operations are not immune from our prosecution,” he said.

Federal prosecutors sued the Michigan Department of Community Health last year to obtain records of seven patients who are part of a criminal drug investigation. The government won its demand in early June, in spite of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act’s promise of confidentiality to anyone who receives state approval. Last week, a Traverse City attorney representing the Michigan Association of Compassion Clubs asked for a stay in the case until an appeal can be heard.

Focus not on patients

Although precise statistics were unavailable this week, it appears that federal authorities have continued to prosecute alleged violations of federal marijuana laws on a regular basis since passage of the state’s medical marijuana law.

Some of the cases have been brought against growers who initially claimed to be operating in accordance with the state statute. But federal law enforcement officials said such a defense is irrelevant in a federal prosecution.

“We’re going to enforce federal law,” Rich Isaacson, a special agent in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Detroit office, said Thursday. Nevertheless, the focus of federal law enforcement is on “large-scale growers,” not on medicinal users and caregivers operating within state law, Isaacson said.

In one federal prosecution begun in December, a pair of Ingham County men were each charged with the manufacture of more than 100 marijuana plants, a federal felony punishable by a minimum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $2 million. Both pleaded guilty in May in an agreement with prosecutors expected to minimize potential prison time.

The agreement makes no mention of medical marijuana.

Contact Bill Laitner: 586-826-7264 or blaitner@freepress.com

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