Next week the people of Lyons will vote on whether to close that small town’s three medical marijuana dispensaries. That’s their right under Colorado’s carefully crafted law, which defers on the most basic issue of all — whether dispensaries even exist — to local sentiment.
Many communities have banned dispensaries, some through popular vote and some through ordinance, but others have refused — and the decisions have not always fallen along predictable lines. The college city of Fort Collins outlawed dispensaries last fall, for example, while residents of unincorporated El Paso County rejected a ban in 2010.
If Lyons residents refuse to close their dispensaries — and Mayor Julie Van Domelen says the outcome is “anyone’s guess” — it may be because the town council imposed tight regulations on them last May. Not only are no new ones permitted, for example, but if one of the three closes, the total number will be capped at two.
Unfortunately, this sort of grass-roots democracy doesn’t sit well with U.S. Attorney John Walsh, whose office has once again sent out notices to a number of medical marijuana dispensaries around the state warning them that they have 45 days to close or face prosecution. Walsh’s excuse is that these dispensaries are located within 1,000 feet of a school — in Boulder that includes the University of Colorado — even if they comply with local and state rules.
Walsh not only knows better than local civic leaders what constitutes a threat to young people, his long-term goals don’t necessarily stop with the enforcement of a 1,000-foot zone that may or may not be the most appropriate buffer.
No, Walsh is keeping his powder dry for possible further crackdowns on Colorado’s medical marijuana system.
He acknowledged this astonishing possibility in a letter last week to Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett, who’d suggested that “the resources of the United States Attorney’s Office should be focused elsewhere: on terrorism, serious economic crime, organized crime and serious drug dealing (involving significant amounts of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine).”
“I can see no legitimate basis in this judicial district to focus the resources of the United States government on the medical marijuana dispensaries that are otherwise compliant with Colorado law or local regulation,” Garnett wrote on March 13. “The people of Boulder County do not need … the federal government dictating how far dispensaries should be from schools, or other fine points of local land use law.”
Just so. Nor do the people of Denver and a host of other communities need such second-guessing.
But Walsh was unimpressed. Not only did he reiterate his intention to continue with the current crackdown, which he said was entirely his call, not Washington’s, but he added a warning for other dispensaries.
“I should emphasize that this program is only one part of this office’s overall enforcement effort, and does not create by implication a safe harbor for marijuana dispensaries or marijuana cultivation in other locations,” Walsh wrote.
As it happens, a safe harbor is exactly what the Obama administration signaled in October 2009 it was willing to create for those “in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws.”
Yet Walsh, following more recent Justice Department practice, blithely recasts the clear meaning of the “Ogden memo,” claiming it extended only to patients and “their immediate caregivers.”
It must be difficult for federal officials, conditioned to expect universal obeisance, to encounter a population that asks: Don’t you have better things to do? But in this case the only wonder is that the officials themselves don’t slap their foreheads and say: Now that you mention it, we do.