To all appearances, Connecticut is well on the way to making medical marijuana available to people who are suffering from certain serious illnesses. Regulations have been drafted and will be voted on by a legislative committee next month. Physicians have thus far certified 660 patients as eligible for the palliative substance. Proposals for production facilities have surfaced in Watertown and Middletown, with others on the way.
But there remains one nagging, unresolved issue: It is still a federal crime to use, cultivate, dispense or possess marijuana. Indeed, since 2009 the Justice Department has conducted more than 170 aggressive raids in inie medical marijuana states, according to the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
Connecticut officials think they have crafted a strict, tightly regulated law that will not draw the attention of federal authorities. We hope they are right. The better option is to end the disconnect between state and federal laws, so people with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other ailments can, if they choose, use marijuana to gain some measure of relief.
In 2008 candidate Barack Obama said that medical marijuana would not be a priority target of Justice Department resources. Well, not so fast. The department’s policy on the subject was outlined in a couple of memos, most recently the 2011 “Cole Memo,” from Deputy U.S. Attorney General James M. Cole to U.S. attorneys around the country.
Mr. Cole said it is “likely not an efficient use of federal resources” to focus enforcement on sick people or their caregivers, but reminded the federal prosecutors that persons “who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law … such persons are subject to federal enforcement action, including potential prosecution.”
The plain meaning is that federal law enforcement officers can — and in an increasing number of cases have — gone after medical marijuana growers.
Justice Department spokeswoman Allison Price said via email last week that the department’s focus is “on making sure that people aren’t using the pretext of medical marijuana to do large-scale interstate drug dealing.”
She suggests the feds are looking at larger operations that aren’t well monitored. This should work in Connecticut’s favor. The state’s statute, passed last year, envisions a small, tightly controlled system. There will be no more than 10 secure production facilities (Colorado has more than 1,000 farms), and a limited but as yet undetermined number of dispensaries, each run by a licensed pharmacist. Marijuana will be treated like other controlled pharmaceuticals.
“Connecticut has done everything it can to insulate itself from federal intervention,” said Consumer Protection Commissioner William M. Rubenstein, whose department administers the program. He said in drafting the regulations, his people studied the experience in some (lightly regulated) Western states, and opted for a closely controlled system that would prevent theft and diversion and focus on sick people.
But for the federal law, major pharmaceutical companies, who know how to make safe drugs at competitive prices, might be in the game.
In the vast and complex world of law there are many situations where state and federal laws disagree. The state and federal minimum wages are different, for example. We can live with most of these discrepancies, but not the disconnect on medical marijuana; it causes too many problems.
For example, the Colorado Court of Appeals in April upheld the firing of a quadriplegic man, Brandon Coates, for off-the-job medical-marijuana use, concluding that, because marijuana is illegal under federal law, employees have no protection to use it. Mr. Coates uses marijuana to control muscle spasms.
At present, 19 states and the District of Columbia have chosen to help people such as Mr. Coates. We urge Congress and the president to let them, by passing a law like Connecticut’s.