U.S. Attorney Issues Vermont Marijuana Dispensary Warning


Graphic: Potspot 411

​Vermont on Wednesday joined the growing list of medical marijuana states which have received threatening letters from federal prosecutors regarding state licensing of cannabis dispensaries and grow operations.

Disturbingly, the latest letter — from U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin — is yet another overt attempt to influence pending legislation, this time a bill which would legalize and license medical marijuana dispensaries in Vermont.
“I really had every intention of voting for this bill until this morning,” said Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset), reports Terri Hallenbeck at the Burlington Free Press. “The letter impressed me.”

Lawmakers and the administration of Governor Peter Shumlin knew, even as the bill was being crafted over the past months, that the federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule I substance with a high risk of abuse and no medical benefits. Vermont legalized medical marijuana for registered patients in 2004; this year’s bill aims to give those patients a legal means of getting cannabis if they are unable to grow it themselves. The bill would allow up to four nonprofit dispensaries to be licensed by the state.

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U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin: “Individuals who elect to operate marijuana cultivation facilities will be doing so in violation of federal law”

​While a 2009 statement from the U.S. Department of Justice claimed the agency would not “spend its resources” pursuing medical marijuana patients and providers who were obeying their state laws, the Coffin letter — and similar warnings which preceded it in California, Washington, Montana, Colorado, Rhode Island and Arizona — indicates a firmer stance from the Obama Administration.
“Individuals who elect to operate marijuana cultivation facilities will be doing so in violation of federal law,” Coffin’s threatening letter reads in part. “Others who knowingly facilitate such industrial cultivation activities, including property owners, landlords, and financiers, should also know that their conduct violates federal law.”
Coffin did not return a call Wednesday seeking clarification if he meant that he would pursue dispensaries, even if they are following state law, or if he would only be going those who violate state rules.
Backers of the bill in Vermont, including Gov. Shumlin, tried on Wednesday to find a way to pass the bill as scheduled before legislators go home for the year later this week. The bill, which has already passed the Senate, won approval in a preliminary voice vote with some dissent in the House after two hours of debate on Wednesday. The bill is up for another House vote on Thursday.
“We take this letter seriously,” Gov. Shumlin’s legal counsel, Beth Robinson, told the House Human Services Committee on Wednesday morning. But, she added, “The governor wants to move forward.”
State Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said his office “sought Coffin’s input” after hearing that the federal prosecutor in Rhode Island had made comments to officials there last week, prompting Governor Lincoln Chafee to halt launching his state’s dispensary licensing program. The Rhode Island letter, like other recent U.S. attorney threat letters, was almost identical to Coffin’s.
Similar letters from U.S. Attorneys in other states in recent weeks have put the brakes on other dispensary laws, with officials, including Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, noting that the tone from the feds is different than earlier responses on the same issue.
Gov. Gregoire responded by vetoing a bill to license marijuana dispensaries in Washington, claiming concerns about the arrest and federal prosecution of state employees. New Jersey’s governor is waiting for “federal guidance” before going ahead with dispensaries there.
Gov. Shumlin hopes to work with other governors and the Obama Administration to resolve the conflict between states and the federal government, according to Robinson.
Rep. Sandy Haas (P-Rochester) said on the House floor Wednesday that she doubts whether federal prosecutors will really pursue dispensary operators, particularly with numerous restrictions the Vermont bill contains. Just in case, the House Human Services Committee added a last-minute amendment giving Gov. Shumlin the authority to put the process of taking applications from dispensary operators on hold if there are concerns about federal enforcement.