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ACLU Calls on Governor Chafee to Issue Medical Marijuana Dispensary Licenses

Posted: May 04, 2011|Category: Medical Marijuana

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The  Rhode  Island  ACLU  has  today called  upon  Governor  Lincoln  Chafee  to  issue certificates of registration to three medical marijuana dispensaries approved by the Department of Health, notwithstanding a threatening letter sent last week by U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha suggesting that those dispensaries may be criminally liable under federal law.

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today that holding up issuance of the registrations, as the Governor did on Monday in response to the threat of criminal prosecution, “is directly contrary to state law and, in any event, is not mandated in any way by Mr. Neronha’s disturbing letter.” Brown’s three-page letter to the Governor further raised concerns about both the content of Mr. Neronha’s letter and its timing.

In October 2009, a Department of Justice memo relating to state medical marijuana laws, and relied on by Neronha, advised U.S. Attorneys in those states that, “as a general matter,” they “should  not  focus  federal  resources  …  on  individuals  whose  actions  are  in  clear  and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana,” while “prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority of the Department.” (emphasis added)

The ACLU letter to the Governor notes that state law requires that the dispensaries approved by the Department of Health be non-profit organizations. Thus, since the dispensaries are “in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana,” and they are not involved in “unlawfully market[ing] and sell[ing] marijuana for profit,” the ACLU pointed out that in accordance with the 2009 memo, and contrary “to Mr. Neronha’s asseverations, these dispensaries should not be a federal enforcement priority and the letter should not be a basis for undoing the will of the General Assembly and the carefully considered work of the Health Department.”

Noting that the DOH’s decision to approve the three dispensaries was the culmination of a highly publicized and open two-year process, the ACLU also argued that the timing of the U.S. Attorney’s letter “creates the appearance that the Department of Justice is unfairly using its law enforcement and prosecutorial functions in order to undermine the outcome of a lengthy and public process where its input could have been offered. While the federal government may have a legitimate interest in the outcome of state legislation or rule-making and may seek to affect those outcomes by political means, we believe the U.S. Attorney’s last-minute attempt to derail this two-year old law is an abuse of those powers.”

The letter adds: “State law mandates the issuance of these registrations. Nothing in federal law or Mr. Neronha’s letter prevents the State from exercising its clear obligation under state law to issue those certificates.  Upon issuance of those registrations, it will then be up to the dispensaries themselves to decide how to respond to the U.S. Attorney’s threats.” Failing to issue the  certificates,  Brown  noted,  “deprives  the  aggrieved  dispensaries  of  any  opportunity  to question  or  challenge  the  validity of  Mr.  Neronha’s  position.  Perhaps  most  importantly,  it deprives suffering patients of the hope that they will soon receive the medicine they need.”

The  letter  argues  that  the  state  law  “and  the  detailed  regulations  implementing  it promote both public health and public safety. …The impropriety of Mr. Neronha’s threats, and the degree to which his position varies from Department of Justice policy, support your taking a position affirming Rhode Island law. … We urge you to reconsider your position, and to instead issue the letters of registration to the three DOH-approved dispensaries.”

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