U.S. Prosecutor Issues Vermont Pot Dispensary Warning

Rep. Patti Komline was going to vote for a bill that would allow medical marijuana dispensaries in Vermont until a letter from Vermont’s top federal prosecutor landed on her desk hours before the vote Wednesday.

The last-minute letter threw a speed bump in front of a bill headed for passage, but appeared unlikely to halt it. U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin warned in the letter that marijuana remains illegal under federal law and those associated with a dispensary were at risk of prosecution.

“I really had every intention of voting for this bill until this morning,” said Komline, R-Dorset. “The letter impressed me.”

Lawmakers and the Shumlin administration knew as the bill was being crafted over the past few months that the federal government considered marijuana in violation of federal law even if states legalized it for medical uses. Vermont legalized medical marijuana for registered users in 2004; this year’s bill is designed to give those users a legal means of obtaining the drug if they are unable to grow it themselves by allowing up to four nonprofit dispensaries to be established.

More than a dozen states have approved marijuana for medical use with about half of them allowing medical marijuana dispensaries, according to the Associated Press. A 2009 statement from the U.S. Department of Justice stated the agency would not spend its resources pursuing such users. The letter from Coffin, dated Tuesday, indicated a firmer stance.

“Individuals who elect to operate marijuana cultivation facilities will be doing so in violation of federal law. Others who knowingly facilitate such industrial cultivation activities, including property owners, landlords, and financiers, should also know that their conduct violates federal law,” Coffin’s letter said in part.

Coffin did not return a call Wednesday seeking clarification if that meant he would pursue dispensaries that were following the state law or if he would be apt to go after them only if they sold to non-registered users.

Backers of the bill in Vermont, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, scrambled Wednesday to find a way to pass the bill as scheduled before lawmakers go home for the year later this week. The bill, which has passed the Senate, won approval in a preliminary voice vote with some dissent in the House after two hours of debate Wednesday. It is up for another House vote today.

“We take this letter seriously,” Beth Robinson, Shumlin’s legal counsel, told the House Human Services Committee on Wednesday morning. She added, however, “The governor wants to move forward.”

State Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said his office sought Coffin’s input after hearing that the federal prosecutor in Rhode Island had made comments to officials there last week, prompting Gov. Lincoln Chafee to halt launching his state’s program. The Rhode Island letter was nearly identical to Coffin’s.

Similar letters from federal prosecutors in other states in recent weeks have put the brakes on other dispensary laws, with officials noting that the tone is different than earlier federal responses on the issue. Washington’s governor vetoed a bill to establish dispensaries there. New Jersey’s governor is awaiting federal guidance before going ahead with dispensaries there.

Shumlin hopes to work with other governors and the Obama administration to resolve the conflict between states and the federal government, Robinson said.

On the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Sandy Haas, P-Rochester, said she remained doubtful federal prosecutors would pursue dispensary operators, particularly with numerous restrictions the Vermont bill contains in hopes of preventing dispensaries from becoming fronts for illegal activity. Just in case, the House Human Services Committee added an amendment giving Shumlin the authority to put the process of taking applications from dispensary operators on hold if there are concerns.

Some lawmakers were not comforted.

“Vermont does not have the right to pass laws that are in violation of federal laws,” said Rep. Andrew Donaghy, R-Poultney.

He asked Haas how many local police departments support the bill. None, Haas conceded, because they were uncomfortable going against federal law.

– Article from Burlington Free Press.