PROVIDENCE — U.S. Attorney Eric Holder said the Justice Department is working with government and law enforcement officials in Rhode Island and several other states to “bring clarity” to the federal government's policy on the sale and distribution of state-sanctioned medical marijuana.
Holder was in Rhode Island Thursday to attend a roundtable discussion of a special court calendar for veterans similar to the so-called “gun court” calendar that has been in operation for about a decade and to tour the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence. But when Holder met with reporters at the institute after his tour, almost all the questions were about U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha's letter to Gov. Lincoln Chafee warning that the three medical marijuana compassion centers the state is in the process of licensing would be in violation of federal law and could be subject to criminal or civil legal actions. In response, Chafee suspended the licensing of the centers.
Meanwhile, the R.I. Patient Advocacy Coalition, a pro-medical marijuana group was at the Statehouse Thursday to lobby legislators and to deliver a letter to Chafee saying, “On behalf of the patients in our medical marijuana program, we implore you to move forward on compassion centers now.”
When asked about Neronha's letter, which is similar to other letters issued by U.S. Attorneys in other states, Holder referred to the “previous policy pronouncement” issued by the Justice Department to the effect that, federal resources would not be used to “target individuals who are complying with state law and using marijuana for medical purposes.”
Acknowledging that there have been “some questions” about that policy, Holder said, “we are going to work to clarify “exactly what that policy is going to mean, how it can be implemented. so we are in continuous, I
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think, conversations about that in Rhode Island and other parts of the country. We hope to bring clarity” so people will understand the Justice Department's stand.
“When we made this policy change,” Holder asserted, “it was something we viewed in a very narrow way to deal with people who had end-stage diseases and chronic diseases where there was the expectation that using marijuana would alleviate their pain.
“We don't want this to be seen as something that was legalization,” he emphasized. “We don't want this to expand beyond the exception that we carved out. So what we have to do is work with our counterparts in state government to deal with – this is something new, we understand that – and we are in a process that will involve a dialogue, communications, and I think at the end of that process, that dialogue, people will understand and we will be in a better place than, frankly, we are right now.
“I'm hoping that, at the end of this conversation, at the end of this dialogue, we will be at a place where we are, as the enforcers of the drug laws that we are satisfied people are doing things that are consistent with our policies.”
Holder did not answer a question asking whether health department workers should be fearful of arrest or prosecution for working with the medical marijuana program, repeating that “we are trying to work through these issues with the governor and other representatives of the state.”
Joanne Leppanen, executive director of the RI Patient Advocacy Coalition, said the group talked with Chafee Thursday evening and found the meeting “a little disheartening.”
She said Chafee noted several times that, “this is illegal under state law,” and at one point said that federal law might have to change.
“Patients can't wait for federal law to change,” Leppanen told The Times. “We need him to champion this and be an advocate for patients right now.”
But, she added, “he didn't seem to interested in hearing patients' stories. We didn't get the impression that this would be a top priority. We were hoping to hear something more encouraging and more pro-active.
“We're hoping we can get a sense of urgency about this,” Leppanen said, “we can't let this keep dragging on and on while people are suffering.”
In its letter to Chafee, RIPAC said, “the patient community is tired and upset. We are tired of the legislative hurdles, administrative delays and political interference. We are desperately seeking compassionate leadership on this issue.”
Chafee spokesman Michael Trainor said the governor intends to “continue in a holding pattern” to see what kind of clarification comes out of the Department of Justice before continuing with the licensing of compassion centers.
Trainor said Chafee “first and foremost wants to protect state employees, compassion center employees and patients from any possible exposure to federal prosecution.” He said the governor is “still concerned that federal policy, even with the modifications Attorney General Holder hinted at, could put Rhode Island in harm's way in terms of licensing medical marijuana facilities.”