Anyone who cultivates, sells or distributes marijuana on a large scale – including local or state officials in jurisdictions with laws allowing the drug’s medical use – could face federal prosecution, the U.S. Justice Department reiterated this week.
Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole issued a memo Wednesday to federal prosecutors across the nation clarifying the department’s policy as set in an October 2009 memo. That earlier memo had said prosecuting significant traffickers of illegal drugs including marijuana remained a core priority, but it’s not an efficient use of federal resources to nail patients with serious illnesses using marijuana consistent with state law, or their caregivers.
“The term ‘caregiver’ as used in the memorandum meant just that: individuals providing care to individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses, not commercial operations cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana,” Cole wrote this week.
This stance hasn’t changed, he wrote, yet “within the past 12 months, several jurisdictions have considered or enacted legislation to authorize multiple large-scale, privately-operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers. Some of these planned facilities have revenue projections of millions of dollars based on the planned cultivation of tens of thousands of cannabis plants.”
The earlier memo “was never intended to shield such activities from federal enforcement action and prosecution, even where those activities purport to comply with state law, Cole wrote.
“Persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law,” he wrote. “Consistent with resource constraints and the discretion you may exercise in your district, such persons are subject to federal enforcement action, including potential prosecution. State laws or local ordinances are not a defense to civil or criminal enforcement of federal law with respect to such conduct, including enforcement of the CSA. Those who engage in transactions involving the proceeds of such activity may also be in violation of federal money laundering statutes and other federal financial laws.”
This comes as no surprise here in Oakland, where the City Council had to shelve its plans to permit and tax large-scale marijuana farming operations after being warned by the county’s district attorney and Northern California’s top federal prosecutor that doing so would probably violate state and federal laws.
Still, medical marijuana advocates are decrying this week’s memo 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 2009 memo’s spirit.
“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,” Americans for Safe Access Executive Director Steph Sherer said in a news release. “The president is using intimidation tactics to stop elected officials from serving their constituents, thereby pushing patients into the illicit market.”
“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?” she added. “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.”
Advocates are putting their energy into efforts to move marijuana off the CSA’s list of most-restricted drugs, as well as legislation that would reduce federal restrictions on how states implement their own medical marijuana laws.
So far, 16 states including California plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana for patients with a physician’s approval. Laws regulating dispensaries exist in Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont, although some states have suspended those laws due to the federal policy.