Medical marijuana: Does U.S. Attorney John Walsh's letter signal end of federal MMJ truce?
HB 1043, a bill sponsored by Representative Tom Massey and Senator Pat Steadman to clean up last year's medical marijuana regulations, seemed to be quietly moving toward passage -- but no more. A letter from U.S. Attorney John Walsh attacking aspects of the legislation call into question whether the federal government will continue its hands-off policy in regard to MMJ businesses following local law in states that have legalized them.
A 2009 memo from Deputy Attorney General David Ogden directed U.S. Attorneys not to target medical marijuana businesses in areas where they're legal, as long as they're following state law -- guidance that was blasted at the time by Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, an outspoken MMJ opponent.
But in 2010, Highlands Ranch medical marijuana grower Chris Bartkowicz was arrested and charged federally -- and after a judge ruled he couldn't use Colorado MMJ rules as a defense, he was sentenced to five years in prison.
More recently, MMJ advocates were alarmed by a letter from California-based U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag promising federal crackdowns on dispensaries regardless of local laws.
Last month, Jeff Dorschner, Walsh's spokesman, made it clear that Haag's letter didn't supersede the Ogden memo. But now, the situation is considerably more confusing.
According to Mike Saccone, spokesman for the Colorado Attorney General's Office, Suthers asked Walsh for an opinion about 1043. Walsh responded with a letter reiterating that marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. Then, after referencing both the Ogden memo and the prosecution of Bartkowicz, he attacked two separate provisions of the bill.
The first, which was stripped out by the Colorado House and is not currently in the legislation, would "license a marijuana investment fund or funds under which both Colorado and out-of-state investors would invest in commercial marijuana operations." Walsh wrote that "the Department would consider civil and criminal legal remedies regarding those who invest in the production of marijuana... even if the investment is made in a state-licensed fund of the kind proposed."
Walsh also lashed out against a still-viable provision for allowing infused-product facilities containing up to 500 plants, "with the possibility of licensing even larger facilities, with no stated number limit, with a state-granted waiver based upon broad factors such as 'business need.'" Again, he emphasized that the feds would consider civil and criminal actions against those who set up such facilities.