Drug War

Do Federal Threats Against Medical Marijuana Suppliers in Colorado Break Holder's Promise?


Yesterday John Walsh, the U.S. attorney in Colorado, sent letters to the operators and landlords of 23 medical marijuana dispensaries, threatening them with forfeiture and prosecution if the businesses are not shut down within 45 days. Walsh said all 23 are within 1,000 feet of a school, which violates state law and triggers enhanced penalties under federal law. But in his letter to dispensaries, he mentioned only the violation of federal law:

Federal law prohibits the manufacture, distribution, and possession of marijuana…The dispensary is operating in violation of federal law, and the Department of Justice has the authority to enforce the federal law where appropriate even when such activities may be permitted under state law.

Walsh's letter to dispensary landlords includes the same language, except that the possibly crucial phrase "where appropriate" is omitted. If Walsh believes prosecution of medical marijuana suppliers is "appropriate" only when they are violating state law, his position is consistent with repeated assurances from his boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, that the Justice Department will not focus its resources on dispensaries that comply with state law. According to The Denver Post, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who elicited a couple of those assurances from Holder during congressional hearings,  is not alarmed by Walsh's letters:

Congressman Jared Polis, who has defended Colorado's medical-marijuana laws in Washington, said a 1,000-foot buffer from schools makes sense and did not express outrage at the limited crackdown. He said dispensaries should comply with the 1,000-foot limit in state law.

"The Justice Department has repeatedly made clear that dispensaries that are in compliance with state law are not an enforcement priority," Polis, D-Boulder, said in a statement. "Colorado's tough system of medical marijuana regulation is the best way to keep drugs out of the hands of minors."

Like California's U.S. attorneys, Walsh seems deliberately ambiguous on the question of whether he will respect state law. But unlike California, where dispensaries operate in a legal gray area, Colorado recently adopted regulations (based on legislation passed in 2010) that explicitly authorize them and set conditions for state licenses, which the Colorado Department of Revenue's Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division began issuing last October. Local governments are authorized to impose additional requirements. In Colorado Springs, for example, applications for local licenses were due at the end of September, and city officials say the process may take up to five months. Denver—which was issuing its own dispensary licenses, based on the medical marijuana law approved by Colorado voters in 2000, before the state enacted its regulations—is in the process of "align[ing]" its procedures with the state's rules. Here is the guidance the city gives to current licensees:

If the process of applying for the new medical marijuana center license takes longer than six months, the licensee can renew again. Existing applicants who applied to the state of Colorado for a Medical Marijuana Optional Cultivation Premises [license] or a Medical Marijuana Infused Products Manufacturer [license] as of August 1, 2010 can continue to remain in business as long as the applicant follows state and local laws.

The 1,000-foot rule is one requirement of those laws, so if Walsh sticks to targeting dispensaries that do not comply with it, he will not be breaking Holder's promise.

For more on the Obama administration's shifty policy on medical marijuana, see my story in the October issue of Reason.

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  1. I spent Christmas in Denver and coming from Tennessee I was shocked (and incredibly jealous) at the number of dispensaries in the city. They were freaking everywhere.

    Walsh should realize that in CO she’s fighting a losing battle. It’s pretty clear that folks are fine with these dispensaries.

    1. Any predictions of full decriminalization and deregulation of narcotics? Or just cannabis?

      1. *on

      2. You have to have regulation before you can deregulate something. Prohibition is the absence of regulation.

  2. I don’t know about Denver, but here’s a map of the areas of San Francisco that are within 1000 feet of a school.

    It might seem like a harmless restriction but in heavily populated areas it may as well be a ban.

    1. I’m pretty sure that’s the point.

  3. If Colorado law imposes the 1000ft requirement, how did the dispensaries get approved in the first place?

    And why would the feds take action rather than deferring to the state to enforce its own laws?

    1. You’re new here, right?

    2. They were grandfathered in. The law went into effect 2010.

    3. Maybe the dispensaries were there before the schools were? I don’t know, but something definitely tells me we’re not getting the whole story.

  4. Congressman Jared Polis is wrong or mis-remembering. No one ever mentioned dispensaries, only patients and caregivers in compliance with state law. You can watch the video yourself showing Polis asking Holder about this. He never said dispensaries following state law are low priority, he only said his original memo stands, which mentions patients and caregivers, not commercial dispensaries. He is wrong and telling lies.

  5. My math fu is weak, so weak, but doesn’t a circle around a school that has a radius of 1000 feet actually create a “sterile zone” that is around 72 acres?

    1. You are correct. Since it is well known that a (drug) mule goes with 40 acres, 72 acres will defeat all but the most stubborn (drug) mule.

  6. Colorado’s tough system of medical marijuana regulation is the best way to keep drugs out of the hands of minors.

    What a non sequitur that is. And what a moron Polis seems to be.

    1. Drug warriors, eh?

    2. No one ever points out to the douche-bags that maybe the best way to keep drugs out of the hands of children is to legalize it, put an age limit (18 or 21) and regulate them like we do with tobacco and alcohol?

      Who’s more likely to sell to kids: the pusher down the street, or a small business owner who can be fined, lose their license or possibly their business for selling to kids?

      Who’s more likely to have shit for brains: dumb-ass pols, or virtually anyone else on the planet?

  7. Don’t you get it, you fools?

    Medical marijuana is totally working; it’s like the dope is legal, now! Relax, brah.

  8. True and true… but maybe, when combined with an equally tough ‘Just Say No’ campaign, drugs really can be kept out of the hands of minors…

  9. It’s pretty clear that folks are fine with these dispensaries.

    Based on my observations in Montana, you’re kidding yourself; I suspect if you read the letters to the editor, you’ll find a ton of panicky shrill concerned soccer moms asking why the fuzz haven’t stamped out the dread poisonous scourge of “medical” marijuana. For their precious little chirrenz.

  10. “We won’t actually arrest patients, we’ll just make it impossible for anyone to supply the stuff. Haha, suck it, civilians.”

  11. Sometimes you just want a fast forward button for life. This is getting legalized no matter how many people kick and scream about it.

  12. I wonder if the presence of pharmacies all over the place make kids want to take up a perscription drug habit… probably

    1. Time to outlaw bathroom medicine cabinets.

      1. The drugs are coming from >inside the house!

      2. I just ran the numbers, and as long as your bathroom medicine cabinet is at least 17 feet from your bathroom, at all times, it won’t be considered attractive to children.

  13. the city of colorado springs made (and spent) 23 million last year in just medical marijuana tax money, not even the 10,000 per store license fee to the state or $150 per employee for their employee license and background check. plus $90 a patient for the card, you do the math.
    $90 x 80,000 – 100,000 patients
    $150 x each mmc employee, grower, owner.
    10,000 x each store license
    sales tax @ 7.4% on each dollar spent.
    the people who don’t want it should donate that kind of tax money before they open their mouths. or just come out and support the drug cartels openly, quit being ashamed. we know you love cartels killing the youth.

  14. i wonder if the governments whacked policies and societies standards turn children to therapy and drug use leading to abuse and dependency later in life. all with no rehab system to turn too? wait that was 2011.

  15. The feds are misleading the public when they talk about “schools” because the federal statute to which the US Attorney refers in the new letter that’s been sent out in CO, 21 USC Sec. 860, defines “schools” much more broadly than most people imagine. The word conjures up images of young children and the DOJ’s PR person talked about protecting children in his statement on these letters, yet the prohibited areas are really defined much more broadly as being:

    in or on, or within one thousand feet of, the real property comprising a public or private elementary, vocational, or secondary school or a public or private college, junior college, or university, or a playground, or housing facility owned by a public housing authority, or within 100 feet of a public or private youth center, public swimming pool, or video arcade facility

    1. Note to self: Go to Colorado and threaten to open a video arcade near each marijuana dispensary unless they pay me a thousand bucks.

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    for 2011-2012 and walk-ins are always welcome.
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  22. Thanks for posting this! I’m trying to find information on Adults Diapers, Adult Diaper and Medical Suppliers.This has definitely helped me in this process.

  23. This legal tussle has been a big deal here in Colorado health insurance and business in general – it wreaks havoc to first allow a kind of business, then disallow.

  24. And the issue isn’t going way – right now the clock is ticking. Whether the business in right or wrong, a number of small business owners will put out of business.

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