Feds warn Colorado lawmakers, governor about medical marijuana
April 27, 2011
DENVER (AP) – States that have legalized medical marijuana are in many cases struggling to regulate the booming new drug market. Now federal authorities are stepping up warnings to the pot states considering rules for how to buy and sell weed.
Colorado became the latest state to receive a federal warning Tuesday when top federal prosecutor in Colorado, John Walsh, sent a letter to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and some lawmakers. The letter says that states shouldn’t pass bills that appear to authorize the medical marijuana business because the drug is still illegal under federal law, though 15 states allow medical marijuana.
The Colorado Legislature is in the middle of considering a bill to tweak the nation’s most extensive state marijuana regulations. Those regulations, set to take effect this summer, mandate how pot can be sold and grown, and it gives state regulators seed-to-sale tracking of the drug. This year’s regulations facing a Senate hearing Monday would add new regulations for makers of cannabis-infused food such as pot brownies, among other changes.
Walsh told Colorado officials that while federal prosecutors don’t intend to go after “seriously ill individuals who use marijuana,” the federal government won’t look the other way when marijuana is manufactured and distributed – “even if such activities are permitted under state law.”
Walsh’s letter closely resembled letters sent earlier by federal prosecutors in California, Washington and Montana.
Earlier this month, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire threatened to veto legislation to license marijuana dispensaries after the Justice Department warned it could result in a federal crackdown.
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“I asked the Legislature to work with me on a bill that does not subject state workers to risk of criminal liability,” Gregoire said in a statement to lawmakers expressing disappointment in the bill. Her veto threat came after an April 14 letter from two U.S. attorneys in Washington that made very similar points to those later made by Walsh.
That letter, along with one sent to Montana lawmakers, stated that “growing, possessing and distributing marijuana in any capacity, other than as part of a federally authorized research program, is a violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities.”
Montana lawmakers passed an outright repeal of medical marijuana in that state after the letter and federal raids on dispensaries. The Montana repeal was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, but another bill dramatically limiting marijuana dispensaries passed the Montana Legislature on Wednesday.
And in Arizona, U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke has announced he’ll offer advice to lawmakers in that state considering marijuana rules.
In Colorado, lawmakers said the federal warning won’t stop this year’s regulation bill, which has already cleared the House.
“To me, it’s just the federal government being clumsy and heavy-handed,” said the Senate pot bill sponsor, Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman.
Steadman pointed out that the warning letter was requested by Republican Attorney General John Suthers, who then shared it with reporters but not all lawmakers. Because of that, Steadman questioned whether Walsh and Suthers truly intend to sway lawmakers.
“I don’t really think we need to do anything different,” Steadman said.
And the House sponsor, Republican Rep. Tom Massey, argued that Colorado’s measure brings more oversight to the pot business, “which I assume they would be fine with, quite honestly.”
Massey said the tone of the letter goes to show that the regulation of medical marijuana is evolving. “Given the fact that this is all brand new territory we’re diving into, it will continue to be a work in progress I’m sure through the next several years as we continue to refine and clarify,” he said.
The legal counsel for the nation’s best-known marijuana legalization advocate said states shouldn’t fear their regulations will prompt federal drug-enforcement invasions.
“Don’t be intimidated by these semi-threats from U.S. attorneys. They do a lot of huffing and puffing but they don’t usually get involved in state matters,” said Keith Stroup of the Washington-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Stroup said that so far, federal drug authorities have gone after only flamboyant marijuana growers, such as a suburban Denver grower who bragged on a local television station about how much money he was making growing pot in his basement. Recent federal raids in Montana focused on large-scale growers, including one who advertised on television that prospective patients didn’t need to bring medical records.
“The people who forgot about moderation in all things, they have brought the heat down on responsible people,” Stroup said.
Associated Press Writer Ivan Moreno contributed to this report.
Colorado’s House Bill 1043: http://goo.gl/U0s4J