Arizona's Medical-Marijuana Law Safe From Federal Action, For Now, in New Obama Policy

Categories: Medical Weed

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Image: psychedelicadventure.net/
In another victory for pro-legalization forces, a new Obama Administration policy announced today takes a mostly hand-off approach to state marijuana laws.

The news by the U.S. Justice Department comes as a long-awaited response to last year's elections in Colorado and Washington that legalized the use and sale of marijuana.

But the administration's latest guidance affects more than just those two states. It means Arizona's 2010 medical-marijuana law, and the dispensaries now opening across the state, are largely safe from federal intervention.

See also:
- Arizona Medical-Marijuana List of 48 State-Authorized Dispensaries Released by DHS

In a letter that went out today to all 50 states' U.S. Attorneys offices, the Justice Department expands on guidance given in the 2009 "Ogden memo," which paved the way for the first waves of pioneering marijuana-retail shops for medicinal users in California and Colorado, and a 2011 clarification of the policy.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole's new memo states that laws like that of Arizona's can actually help federal goals by "replacing an illicit marijuana trade that funds criminal enterprises with a tightly regulated market in which revenues can be tightly tracked and accounted for."

This seems to be a real change, at least in terms of executive branch actions: The feds are saying that, as a strategy to fight crime, marijuana legalization works.

Acknowledging how state laws which legalize cannabis affect the "traditional joint federal-state approach to narcotics enforcement," (he just had to work the word "joint" into this letter, didn't he?) Cole tells federal prosecutors that tightly regulated marijuana use-and-distribution schemes are "less likely" to trigger a federal enforcement response.

While a May 2011 letter to Arizona by former Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke focused on the vague notion that a "large" cultivation or distribution center would antagonize drug agents, Cole stipulates that "both the existence of a strong and effective state regulatory system, and an operation's compliance with such a system, may allay the threat that an operation's size poses to federal enforcement interests."

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole

He goes on to say that from now on, size of the operation alone won't necessarily trigger a raid.

Cole's letter expends a lot of ink discussing how the Justice Department remains concerned about "dangerous" marijuana, and how if too much state-regulated pot ends up in the hands of minors or in states that don't want it, the feds might challenge a state's "regulatory structure" itself, in addition to conducting individual busts.

But the important part of the letter isn't the threat of possible enforcement if certain lines are crossed, it's what's allowed. In Colorado, it means pot retail shops will likely be open as early as January. Similar shops may soon follow in Washington state. And medical-marijuana programs in 20 states, plus Washington D.C., will for the most part be left alone.

Ryan Hurley, an attorney with Rose Law Group who represents medical-marijuana dispensaries, says the new guidance seems to indicate that as long as the dozens of medical-pot businesses in Arizona comply with state law, they'll be allowed to operate without fear. The people who have sunk their time and money in a business that defies federal law "should sleep a little easier at night."

Cole's letter dilutes arguments by some Arizona officials who have claimed in court filings that state employees place themselves at risk of prosecution by carrying out the wishers of voters, Hurley says.

He notes that he'll be interested to see whether the policy affects landlord issues like the pending forfeiture of Harborside Health Center in California.

Who knows -- this announcement could even give a boost to a pot-legalization movement in Arizona that hopes to gather enough signatures to put the issue before voters in 2014.

One big problem with the Obama policy, though: It's not permanent. Only Congress could make that happen. A new president could reverse course following the 2016 election, which means the future of legal marijuana remains cloudy.

It's also not clear whether the policy will change the minds of state officials like state Attorney General Tom Horne and Maricopa County Bill Montgomery, who want to see the law overturned. We left messages earlier today for those two -- Horne's office says it's working on a reply, but we haven't heard back yet from Montgomery's camp.

Arizona U.S. Attorney John Leonardo, through a spokesman, declined comment. Whatever Leonardo's doing today that prevented him from returning our call, we know what he's not doing: Busting state-authorized medical-marijuana dispensaries.

UPDATE: Bill Montgomery got back to us with a comment. We'd asked him two main questions: How might this policy affect the lawsuit against White Mountain Health Center, and what are the legal pitfalls in Obama's doing this as an executive policy move, rather than waiting for Congress. Here's what Montgomery said in an email, via his spokesperson Jerry Cobb:

1. The new policy "has no impact on the White Mountain case and any suggestions to the contrary are a pipe dream."

2. "...we'll just have to wait and see how things play out."




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23 comments
David Briggs
David Briggs

I wish it would go to court so the issue would be resolved. We don't need them "changing their minds" later when it's convenient.

Juan Roque
Juan Roque

Now can he apply the same logic to Syria?

sweetcookies3333
sweetcookies3333

Nobody locks people up like Arizona, lol...mean ass conservatives.  The greatest plant known to man is almost free across the entire country.  LET FREEDOM RING!!!!  suck it christians and conservatives, go worship your MEAN GOD

Dani Cutler
Dani Cutler

Perfect! It's what Arizona always wants, the feds to stay out. Win! ;)

teknik
teknik

I can hear veins snapping in the foreheads of our local "small government conservatives" from my chair!


Imagine the shock and horror as these liberal antics slowly sink our once great America into the hands of Satan! 

WhoKnows
WhoKnows topcommenter

It would be nice if this turns off the "reefer madness" crap from people like MontyPoodle, but  I doubt it will.  It's more likely they'll attack Obama for ignoring laws!

dtmac
dtmac

Time to vote out the elected officials who ignore, and actively fight the will of the people. Horne & Monty.

Flyer9753
Flyer9753 topcommenter

Worth watching - Cenk makes some good points and it includes a breakdown specifically as to what the DOJ will look at states that legalize, for.

http://youtu.be/ITuyoXq68IE

Pay particular attention to the part around 2:50 and a quote about what prosecutors being able to do, no longer being optional and no longer being able to use the sheer volume of sales or the for-profit status of an operation being a trigger for prosecution <- HUGE

Flyer9753
Flyer9753 topcommenter

1. ABOUT FUCKING TIME

2. While I sincerely hope this is going to turn out to be true in application, I will wait and see since not only has this administration promised similar in the past and then not carried through with it, so have local and even Federal agencies, even in defiance of whatever the law/policy was at the time

3. I hope that assuming the Feds do hold to this, they will also go after the local state agencies that decide they are going to do whatever the hell they want and then just not file charges - i.e. the extremely common law enforcement tactic where they come in and raid a legal shop or grower, smash everything, take all the cash and valuables, leave and just never file charges, never returning the stolen cash or paying for the damages. 

To Brewer and all the other local AZ legislative aholes - now you have absolutely no excuse to allow you to not do your fucking jobs and get this program that the Voters have said they want 3 times, in place and running the way the voters said.


ExpertShot
ExpertShot topcommenter

To all those who say there are no major differences between Dems and Reps, THIS change in Federal policy toward States Rights is a MAJOR difference.  It would NEVER have happened under a Republicant administration. 

For all you potheads out there - please remember this when the elections come around.  There is REAL CHANGE you can count on when you elect Dems.

eric.nelson745
eric.nelson745 topcommenter

We will know that mj laws are being reformed when the dispensaries have a way to file federal corporate income tax returns. 

jetdoc1
jetdoc1

@sweetcookies3333 That's absolutely UNNECESSARY to imply.  If you knew anything at all, you'd know that Jesus used Hemp Oil to cure people in the Bible.  Secondly 48% of Republicans believe marijuana SHOULD be legal medicinally at the VERY least.  Cannabis legalization is NOT a Liberal or Conservative issue.  It's not a LAW & ORDER issue.  It's not a RELIGIOUS issue...  It's a Health and HUMAN RIGHTS issue   So let's please not go bashing Christians NOR Conservatives.  I'm a Conservative myself and I am ACTIVELY fighting prohibition.  THINK before you post something STUPID next time!

jetdoc1
jetdoc1

@WhoKnows This ISN'T over... you know that right?  First off, NOTHING HAS CHANGED!  All he did was, say they were going to back off.  Nothing says they WILL, and the LAWS as well as the inflated DEA eradication budget is still in place.  No FEDERAL LAWS were changed.  That's why we MUST write and call your US Representatives and Senators.  There's a Senate Hearing coming up 9/10/13 in the Senate Judiciary Committee that's going to PIN HOLDER DOWN on these issues, as well as deal with allowing these cannabis related companies to use the Federal Banking System.  Jeff Flake is ON the Senate Judiciary Committee, so WRITE and CALL him! We're NOT out of the woods yet, and only a FOOL would believe we are!  I'm sorry, but I'm now 53 y/o and I lived the first 43 believing that my Govt. wouldn't LIE to me.  We're Americans...  Spent the last 10 LITERALLY being AFRAID of my Government!  This is NOT the America I grew up in, this is NOT the America that I SERVED, this is NOT the America I FOUGHT for!

jetdoc1
jetdoc1

@ExpertShot  What you fail to realize is...  there's just as many DEMS that are PRO prohibition as there are REPS.  Don't shit yourselves!  As I said before, this ISN'T a DEM or REP issue.  and again....  NOTHING'S CHANGED!  If you get pulled over and have weed on you, YOU'RE going to JAIL!  STILL!

valleynative
valleynative topcommenter

@ExpertShot 

Actually, many, if not  most, Republicans favor having the Feds abide by the Constitution, which has no provision for outlawing pot within the States.   Remember when they decided to outlaw alcohol and had to amend the Constitution to do so?

WhoKnows
WhoKnows topcommenter

@ExpertShot You do know that pot was decriminalized in Alaska as far back as the 1970's right?  At the time I lived in a city in the midwest that had also decriminalized pot ($5 fine for up to 1/4 POUND).  There was never signs of the feds coming in and busting anyone at the time.

THE_JUDGE
THE_JUDGE

@ExpertShot Reps for the most part scatter like roaches in the light on this issue. To be fair, there are some  repubs that have spoken up but nowhere near the numbers that incessantly preach states rights, I guess it is akin to "fuck socialism, don't you dare touch my medicare...." Just more nonsensical positioning from a broken failed party. In any case I am cautiously pleased with Obama and Holder's stance, finally.

marcy
marcy

@eric.nelson745 

Nothing is stopping them from filing federal corporate tax returns, in fact they are required to.

jetdoc1
jetdoc1

@marcy @eric.nelson745 you know better than that Marcy...  they're not able to deduct SIMPLE business expenses that ANY small business gets to write off.  They can't even write off PENCILS!  So don't float that bullshit around here trying to start a fight...  I've been onto you for a long time, and it's the SAME thing over and over and over....

eric.nelson745
eric.nelson745 topcommenter

@marcy @eric.nelson745 You're right. Their problem is they can't claim any deductions like GE and General Dynamics who end up paying zero tax.

Flyer9753
Flyer9753 topcommenter

@marcy @eric.nelson745 

Nothing except getting arrested and having provided all the evidence to the feds, through those filings you talk about, to charge them with racketeering and such crimes, out of scope crimes simply because they can according to the letter of the law. 

Yeah.. nothing stopping them at all

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