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Medical-Marijuana Advocacy Group Sees Loophole for Dispensaries in Memo

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PROVIDENCE, RI – The head of the state's largest medical-marijuana advocacy group remains optimistic that someday, in the not too distant future, a cannabis dispensary will open its doors to licensed patients suffering from myriad illnesses such as cancer, glaucoma and chronic pain.

JoAnne Lepannen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, said on Tuesday that she has carefully reviewed the two-page memo that the Justice Department issued last week, "Seeking to Authorize Marijuana for Medical Use." In it, she sees a silver lining because there is no specific threat by federal authorities to prosecute state employees who have anything to do 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 government] didn't say. That speaks volumes."

The memo does warn that those who "facilitate" large-scale medical-marijuana production are violating the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Rhode Island is one of 16 states and the District of Columbia that 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 dispensary organizations to cultivate and sell marijuana to patients in the state program.

A month later, Peter F. Neronha, the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, delivered a letter to Governor Chafee warning him that those involved with the dispensaries could be subject to criminal and civil prosecution if they engaged in large-scale marijuana-cultivation and distribution. Chafee immediately placed the dispensary program on hold, saying that he was fearful that the Justice Department would raid the facilities and possibly prosecute state employees affiliated with the program.

Chafee's fear was based on a recent development in Washington state. There, U.S. Attorneys Mike Ormsby and Jenny Durkan said that state employees involved in the licensing or regulation of medical marijuana could be subject to arrest or prosecution. As a result, Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed key pieces of the medical-marijuana law, saying she didn't want to place state employees at risk.

Chafee and Claire Richards, his chief legal counsel, have repeatedly referred to Gregoire's response in Washington.

Mike Trainor, Chafee's spokesman, said that 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. "We have to be very careful in our analysis here," Trainor said.

The memo by James M. Cole, deputy attorney general, states that 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 expresses concern 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 those people "who knowingly facilitate" the marijuana industry are in violation of federal law.

It's unclear whether the "knowingly facilitate" could be a reference to state employees.

Jessica A. Smith, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, declined to speculate on whether prosecutors would target state employees, but she did mention Neronha's letter to Chafee and the three dispensaries selected for operation in Rhode Island.

"There has been an increase in the scope of these activities, and this memo makes clear that they are subject to potential law-enforcement action," she wrote in an e-mail.

She also wrote that the Justice Department has no interest in prosecuting seriously ill patients or their caregivers who smoke or ingest marijuana for medicinal reasons.

The message is clear: big marijuana dispensaries are going to be targeted for federal prosecution.

At least one, and possibly two of the three dispensaries selected by the state Department of Health fall into that category. The Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick projected having 8,000 patients and bringing in $24.7 million by 2013. They also predicted that the 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 the third year of operation.

Jim Martin, Neronha's spokesman, declined to comment on the Cole memo. He referred all inquires to the Justice Department.

Lepannen, RIPAC's executive director, said that she believes the three Rhode Island dispensaries can "modify" their projections and still serve the growing population of patients in the medical-marijuana program. Statistics from the Health Department show that there are now 3,689 patients and 2,317 licensed caregivers, or marijuana providers, in the program.

In the past month alone, 109 new patients and 54 caregivers have been licensed.

Lepannen said the need for dispensaries is greater than ever. She emphasized that many patients have a hard time finding a reliable person to provide them with the drug at a reasonable price.

"We keep getting more patients, and they keep wondering where they are going to get their medicine," she said. "What are we going to tell them?"

Lepannen said that she is in the process of setting up a meeting with Richards, 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.

In a related development, a bill to decriminalize marijuana died in the recently completed session of the General Assembly. The legislation called for possession of an ounce or less to be a civil offense punishable by a $150 fine.

Under current law, possession of any amount could land an offender up to a year in jail.

Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, said that legislators held a public hearing in late May, but Fox did not feel any urgency to act on the proposal to ease criminal penalties.

Berman said that Fox was consumed with pension reform and other issues in the just-completed legislative session.

"It just wasn't the year to focus on [decriminalization]," Berman said. "The timing wasn't right."

Last month, Connecticut passed legislation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and Gov. Daniel P. Malloy has promised to sign it into law. Massachusetts took the same step in 2008.

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News Hawk- Jacob Ebel 420 MAGAZINE
Source: projo.com
Author: W. Zachary Malinowski
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Copyright: The Providence Journal Co.
Website: Medical-marijuana advocacy group sees loophole for dispensaries in Justice Department memo
 
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