Medical marijuana: Does Melinda Haag's memo foreshadow federal MMJ raids in Colorado?
While medical marijuana is legal in Colorado, it remains against U.S. law -- and the push and pull between the state and the feds continues to concern the local MMJ community. Case in point: The Haag memo, a letter sent in February by California-based U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag promising that federal crackdowns on dispensaries will continue despite local laws allowing medical marijuana: Read it below. Does this mean medical marijuana businesses in Colorado should be worried?
The folks at the Cannabis Therapy Institute certainly think so. In a recent release, also on view below, CTI argues that the Haag missive, sent to the Oakland city attorney in response to a request for MMJ-related guidance from the community's city council, "clarifies" a 2009 memo from Deputy Attorney General David Ogden. That document directed U.S. Attorneys not to target medical marijuana businesses in areas where they're legal as long as they're following state law.
The Ogden memo didn't protect Highlands Ranch MMJ grower Chris Bartkowicz, who was convicted of violating federal marijuana cultivation laws. Bartkowicz thought he was legal by Colorado standards -- a matter of some dispute -- but his attorney, Joseph Saint-
Veltri, was not allowed to use a medical defense in court.
However, Bartkowicz's arrest last year, following his appearance on 9News, wasn't followed by dozens of wholesale busts on medical marijuana growers and businesses, whose operations are governed by recently finalized regulations developed by the Colorado Department of Revenue.
In the wake of the Haag memo, however, Drug Enforcement Administration raids have taken place in California and Montana. Could Colorado be next?
We put that question to Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Colorado. In conversation, he certainly doesn't portray the Haag memo as having superseded Ogden's in the eyes of John Walsh, his boss.
"In Colorado, the U.S. Attorney relies on the Ogden memo to provide guidance specifically as it pertains to how best to utilize our resources when it comes to marijuana prosecutions," Dorschner says. "Our focus in the District of Colorado remains on large-scale drug-trafficking organizations, and that would include large marijuana grows. But again, it would have to be in the context of the Ogden memo."
Does Dorschner's statement mean Haag's letter shouldn't be construed as setting federal policy?
"If you look at an organizational chart at the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorneys are all on a parallel line," he replies. "Then they report up the chain of command to various officials in Washington." He adds that "the Ogden memo, when it was written, was issued by the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, who was authorized to set guidance."
In other words, Walsh is bound by the Ogden memo, not by Haag's. So does that mean a significant escalation in raids here isn't in the cards?
"The U.S. Attorney evaluates marijuana matters on a case-by-case basis, again using the Ogden memo as a guide as to how best utilize resources," Dorschner reiterates. "That is something this U.S. Attorney has done consistently since he was sworn into office."
Presumably, then, the Bartkowicz case might provide a better gauge of Walsh's approach than does the Haag memo. Walsh was confirmed last August, months after Bartkowicz was indicted. And while he didn't drop the prosecution when he took office, he signed off on a plea agreement that sentenced Bartkowicz to five years -- far less than the forty-to-sixty year jolt he might have received.
Will these words reassure local advocates fearful that Haag's letter translates to open season on medical marijuana? Judge for yourself after paging down to read the Haag memo and the aforementioned Cannabis Therapy Institute release.