Pubdate: Thu, 05 May 2011
Source: Burlington Free Press (VT)
Copyright: 2011 Burlington Free Press
Author: Terri Hallenbeck, Free Press Staff Writer


MONTPELIER -- 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

"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

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

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.
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