Federal pot crackdown hits Colorado–memos fly from DOJ to Suthers to Hickenlooper

Colorado now joins the list of medical marijuana states that have been warned off by The United States Department of Justice, having received a letter from U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh Tuesday.

To see a pdf of the Walsh letter, a letter from Colorado Attorney General John Suthers to Governor John Hickenlooper, and other related letters, click here:

042611 Letters provided to General Assembly

Up until recently, most states with legal medical marijuana have been operating under the guidance of what is known as the Ogden memo, wherein the Department of Justice advised states that while it had the right to prosecute anyone involved in the marijuana trade–whether legal or not–it would not do so as long as individuals were in clear and unambiguous compliance with relevant state laws.

In the past few months, however, various U.S. Attorneys have written to state officials in California, Washington, Montana, Hawaii and now Colorado advising that if the feds view state laws as being contrary to federal laws, which virtually all of them are, the feds may indeed choose to prosecute purveyors of medical marijuana and even state employees involved in the regulation of medical marijuana.

From Suthers’ letter to Hickenlooper:

“These letters indicate that while the Department of Justice will not focus its limited resources on seriously ill individuals who use marijuana as part of a medically recommended treatment regimen in compliance with state law, it does maintain its full authority to vigorously enforce federal law against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana even if such activities are permitted under state law. Of great concern is the fact that some of the letters make clear the U.S. Attorneys do not consider state employees who conduct activities under state medical marijuana laws to be immune from liability under federal law.”

Specifically, Walsh writes to Suthers that it is illegal for anyone to rent space to someone who will use that space to manufacture or distribute marijuana.

Mike Saccone, communications director for Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, said this morning that Suthers has been concerned for some time with the number of people currently licensed to use medical marijuana in Colorado and with the demographics of that group, which tends toward young and male.

He said the demographics have changed as regulations have enabled more people to be licensed for marijuana use.

In virtually all the federal memos, the point is made that the feds will probably not prosecute “seriously ill” people using marijuana as part of their medical treatment.

Reading between the lines, it seems that both the Department of Justice and Suthers think that not everyone using medical marijuana is doing so because of serious illness.

In fact, Suthers’ memo to Hickenlooper notes that Colorado’s ever changing regulations have led to explosive growth in the number of people using medical marijuana–currently about 123,000 people are, according to Suthers, “…claiming to be using marijuana for medical purposes.”

The question of who is seriously ill and who isn’t comes up again and again. At the end of the day, it seems that determination may be made by law enforcement officials rather than doctors and patients themselves.

Department of Justice spokesperson Jeffrey Dorschner did not return a call and an email in time for publication. The governor’s office also could not be reached for comment this morning.

Walsh’s letter to Suthers also raises concerns about pending legislation regarding investment funds, which was killed in the House, but may be back in the Senate. Walsh made it clear that legislation allowing people to invest in medical marijuana businesses would not be legal and that people involved in such funds would be subject to prosecution.

Walsh also makes it clear that DOJ will consider prosecution of businesses involved in large-scale production and sale of “medical marijuana infused product.”

“Clearly Colorado is in danger” of a federal law enforcement crack down, said Laura Kriho, spokesperson for the Cannabis Therapy Institute.

“Suthers was thrilled to be able to write this memo to the Legislature,” she said. “He has wanted to shut this down since the beginning. He clearly thinks there are a lot of patients who are not seriously ill. That determination should be up to the doctor,” she said.

Kriho found it ironic that Suthers has participated in a lawsuit to exempt Colorado from federal health care legislation but seems to welcome federal involvement in Colorado’s medical marijuana laws.

“The fear factor introduced in these memos is incredible. They say they are going to go after property owners and maybe even state employees. Who do we look to for support? Normally you would look to the state attorney general to defend the state’s position but it doesn’t look like we will get that support from Suthers,” she said.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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