U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday that the Justice Department will work with governors and other state officials to reach a “satisfactory resolution” to the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries in states with medicinal cannabis programs.
Holder’s guarded comments came during a Thursday news conference at The Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence. Afterward, the Attorney General was peppered with questions about the Justice Department’s position on medical marijuana dispensaries, also known as compassion centers, which sell cannabis to patients who have a doctor’s recommendation to use the herb to treat chronic pain, nausea and other ailments.
|Gov. Lincoln Chafee says he needs a guarantee from the U.S. DOJ “that they are not going to raid us and shut us down”
Federal prosecutors in Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, Montana, Colorado, California and Washington have sent threatening letters, saying that federal authorities may arrest anyone affiliated with dispensaries. After Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee got his letter, he quickly placed a hold on licensing the centers.
In Washington state, U.S. Attorneys Mike Ormsby and Jenny Durkan went even further, saying that state employees involved in the licensing or regulation of medical marijuana could be subject to arrest and prosecution. Gov. Christine Gregoire used their threats as cover to veto almost all of a medical marijuana dispensary law that would have provided safe access to patients who have been able legally use cannabis with a doctor’s recommendation since voters approved it in 1998.
On Thursday, Holder dodged questions about whether he would support the arrest of state employees in Rhode Island involved in medical marijuana licensing and regulation. He repeatedly said he hopes “more discussions” between federal and state officials will lead to a “fair resolution” of the conflict between the Justice Department’s policy of prosecuting “signifcant” growers and distributors of marijuana and the operation of medicinal cannabis dispensaries where or for whom substantial quantities would be grown.
The operators of the three proposed dispensaries in Rhode Island — Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence; Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth and Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick — as well as hundreds of medical marijuana patientsk have been deeply disappointed in Holder, U.S. Attorney Neronha and the Justice Department, the Providence Journal reports.
|Photo: Scott Slater
|Rep. Scott Slater: “We still have nothing to show for it”
The threat of a federal crackdown is simply hurting more than 3,000 patients in the state who need marijuana to cope with pain, according to JoAnn Lepannen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition. Lepannen said that it will force many seriously ill patients to find marijuana illegally on the street, or to turn to prescription narcotics that are expensive, highly addictive and potentially deadly.
On Tuesday, state Sen. Rhoda E. Perry and Rep. Scott A. Slater, both Democrats from Providence, met with Gov. Chafee to urge him to go ahead and award state licenses to the three approved dispensaries. Chafee told them he will continue to discuss the matter with governors in the other 15 states with medical marijuana programs before making a decision.
Following Holder’s news conference, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who represents Rhode Island in D.C., said the state’s medical marijuana program and its plans to open dispensaries “seems reasonable and the state has spoken.”
Whitehouse said he would continue to work on the issue with federal and Rhode Island officials “so people know what the rules of the game are.”
Late in the day, Rep. Slater introduced eight medical marijuana patients to the full House of Representatives in Providence. Speaking on their behalf, he urged lawmakers to keep pressuring the Governor to license the three dispensaries. He reminded them that legislation was passed two full years ago to establish the compassion centers.
“We still have nothing to show for it,” Slater said.
The patients, four of whom were in wheelchairs, dropped by Gov. Chafee’s office after Slater’s speech and hand-delivered a letter to him.
“The patient community is tired,” the letter said in part. “We are tired of legislative hurdles, administrative delays and political interference. We are desperately seeking compassionate leadership on this issue. We respectfully ask that you join the many other governors throughout the country who are moving forward on state laws that allow for safe patient access to medicine.”
Chafee was meeting with Whitehouse in his office when the patients arrived, but he emerged a few minutes later to tell them that to grant the dispensary licenses, he needed a guarantee from the Justice Department “that they are not going to raid us and shut us down.”