The U.S. Department of Justice has reiterated its warning that state employees are subject to federal prosecution for implementing the state’s medical-marijuana program.

One high-ranking state official pointed out that the letter exemplifies the tough position that Arizona authorities are in: Federal law says they can’t participate in the program, yet a judge has ordered them to follow through on the will of Arizona voters.

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In a Feb. 16 letter, Acting U.S. Attorney Ann Birmingham Scheel wrote to Gov. Jan Brewer that her office will continue to “vigorously enforce” federal laws against those who “operate and facilitate large marijuana production facilities and marijuana production facilities involved in the cultivation, sale and distribution of marijuana, even if purportedly for medical purposes.”

Scheel said that state employees who participate in the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act “are not immune from liability” under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

However, Scheel wrote that seriously ill patients and caregivers who use pot as medically recommended treatment “will likely not be the focus of the (U.S. Attorney’s Office’s) limited prosecutorial resources.”

Brewer will not change course and will allow the the state’s program to move forward, her spokesman said Monday.

“This doesn’t change anything for us,” said Matthew Benson, adding that the letter “leaves most of the governor’s questions unanswered” partly because it doesn’t address whether state employees face imminent prosecution for participating in the program.

Arizona’s medical-marijuana program was created in 2010 after voters passed a law that allows people with certain debilitating medical conditions to use pot. They must register with the state, which issues identification cards to qualified patients and caregivers. Under the law, the state will set up and regulate up to 126 dispensaries.

The governor filed suit days before the dispensary application process was to begin, stalling the process. She wanted to clarify whether federal drug laws override state laws. The governor dropped the suit after a judge refused to rule on it.

In a separate action, a state judge then ordered state officials to implement the program.

Last January, Brewer asked Scheel to clarify whether state employees would be off the hook when participating in the medical-marijuana program. The governor asked for clear guidance on the Justice Department’s enforcement position and also asked that state workers be advised on the potential civil and criminal ramifications of their actions.

Benson said many of the governor’s questions remain unanswered. “Their position remains sort of nebulous,” he said.

Arizona and 15 other states have medical-marijuana laws that conflict with federal law, which outlaws the cultivation, sale or use of marijuana. Mounting federal pressure in California, Washington and other states has led to dispensary raids and crackdowns on landlords who lease property to dispensaries.

Recently, several U.S. Attorneys have sent letters to local officials reiterating that federal authorities have not changed their stance on the use of medical marijuana. Earlier this month, for example, Rhode Island’s top federal prosecutor reiterated to local officials that federal officials have not endorsed a proposal to allow medical-pot dispensaries to open and remain opposed to large-scale distributors.

Will Humble, director of the state Department of Health Services, said the state is in a difficult position when it comes to implementing the program.

On one hand, federal authorities are warning there is no “safe harbor or immunity” from federal prosecution, but on the other a state judge has ordered them to move forward with the program.

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place — we’re stuck,” he said.

Humble said no state health employees will be allowed to “volunteer” to work on the medical-pot program; no one will be forced to work on it, either. He said workers will go through a series of training in how to act responsibly and safely when working on the program.

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News Hawk – 420 Warrior 420 MAGAZINE
Location: Phoenix, AZ
Source: The Arizona Republic
Author: Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
Copyright: 2012 The Arizona Republic