By Steve Elliott of Toke of the Town
The head of Rhode Island's largest medical marijuana advocacy group said she is still optimistic that cannabis dispensaries will be open in the state in the not-too-distant future.
JoAnne Lepannen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition (RIPAC), said on Tuesday that she has carefully reviewed "Seeking to Authorize Marijuana for Medical Use," the two-page memo issued last week by the Justice Department, reports W. Zachary Malinowski at The Providence Journal.
Lepannen said she sees a silver lining in the document because there is no specific threat by federal authorities to prosecute state employees who are associated with the licensing or oversight of marijuana dispensaries.
"I think there is a ray of hope here," Lepannen said. "We have to read into this letter what [the federal government] didn't say. That speaks volumes."
The memo does warn that those who "facilitate" large-scale medical marijuana production (presumably, that wording was used to intimidate landlords, as well as actual cultivators) are violating the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Rhode Island is one of 16 states, that, along with the District of Columbia, have legalized the medical use of marijuana.
In March, after more than two years of review and public hearings, the state Health Department went one step further: It selected three applicants to run dispensaries, cultivating and selling marijuana to patients in the state-licensed program.
Just a month later, Peter F. Neronha, U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, delivered a threateningly worded letter to Governor Lincoln Chafee warning him that persons involved with the dispensaries could be subject to criminal and civil prosecution if they engaged in "large-scale" marijuana cultivation and distribution.
Chafee immediately put Rhode Island's dispensary system on hold, saying he was fearful that the DOJ would raid the facilities and possibly even prosecute state employees involved with administration of the program.
The governor's fear was based on recent events in Washington state. There, U.S. Attorneys Mike Ormsby and Jenny Durkan had sent another threatening letter saying that state employees involved in the licensing or regulation of medical marijuana could be subject to arrest or prosecution.
As a result, hen-hearted Governor Chris Gregoire vetoed key pieces of a law which would have formally legalized dispensaries in Washington, along with providing arrest protection for patients. Washington's medical marijuana law was approved by voters in 1998, but doesn't provide for dispensaries or arrest protection.
Gregoire claimed she didn't want to put state employees at risk, although if federal agents arrested state employees for doing their job, it would be the first time that has happened in U.S. history.
Gov. Chafee and his chief legal counsel, Claire Richards, have repeatedly referred to Gregoire's response in Washington to justify putting Rhode Island's dispensary program on hold.
The governor's legal staff is reviewing the latest memo and it's possible that Chafee will issue a statement next week after he returns from a family vacation in Maine, according to Mike Trainor, his spokesman. "We have to be very careful in our analysis here," Trainor said.
According to the memo by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, the Justice Department "has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime that provides a significant source of revenue to large-scale criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels."
Cole's letter tries to whip itself into a froth, pretending to be concerned about "large-scale, privately operated industrial cultivation centers," that have "revenue projections of millions of dollars based on the planned cultivation of tens of thousands of cannabis plants."
He also wrote that people "who knowingly facilitate" the marijuana industry are in violation of federal law. That's the line that spooked Governor Chafee, but it's unclear whether the "knowingly facilitate" means that state employees could be prosecuted.
Jessica A. Smith, spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., wouldn't speculate on whether prosecutors would target state employees, but she did mention U.S. Attorney Neronha's letter to Gov. Chafee and the the three dispensaries selected for licensing in Rhode Island.
"There has been an increase in the scope of these activities, and this memo makes it clear that they are subject to potential law-enforcement action," she wrote in an email.
Smith also wrote that the DOJ has no interest in prosecuting seriously ill medical marijuana patients or their caregivers.
Now, does this mean the Justice Department gets to pick and define who is "seriously ill"? And when did these DOJ goons gain their newfound medical expertise?
Meanwhile, one message does seem clear: big marijuana dispensaries are targets for federal prosecution.
Of the three Rhode Island dispensaries selected for licensing, Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick projected having 8,000 patients and bringing in $24.7 million by 2013. They also predicted that their staff would grow to 80 employees.
Meanwhile, the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence forecast revenues of $3.9 million within two years. The third dispensary, Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth, projected revenues of $1.2 million during their third year of operation.
Lepannen, RIPAC's executive director, said she believes the three Rhode Island dispensaries can "modify" their projections and still serve the growing number of patients in the state's medical marijuana program.
According to Health Department numbers, there are now 3,689 patients and 2,317 licensed caregivers in the program. In the past month, 109 new patients and 54 caregivers have been licensed.
The need for dispensaries is greater than ever, according to Lepannen. She said that many patients have a difficult time finding a reliable person to provide them with cannabis at a reasonable price.
"We keep getting more patients, and they keep wondering when they are going to get their medicine," Lepannen said. "What are we going to tell them?"
Lepannen said she is in the process of setting up a meeting with Richards, Gov. Chafee's legal counsel. She wants to ask Richards to advise the governor to allow the Health Department to license the dispensaries because of the absence in the memo of a specific threat to prosecute state employees involved in a dispensary program.
Article From Toke of the Town and republished with special permission.