Pubdate: Tue, 20 Sep 2011 Source: Helena Independent Record (MT) Copyright: 2011 Helena Independent Record Contact: http://helenair.com/app/contact/letters_to_editor/ Website: http://helenair.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/1187 Author: Charles S. Johnson, IR State Bureau PANEL DEBATES FEDERAL ROLE IN MEDICAL WEED Panelists Monday night for different reasons criticized the federal government for its handling of the medical marijuana issue. Former U.S. Attorney William Mercer of Billings, and state Reps. Gary MacLaren, R-Victor, and Diane Sands, D-Missoula, discussed the tensions of changing federal policy on medical marijuana and its effect on Montana. Voters here, by a wide margin, had approved an initiative in 2004 to legalize the use of marijuana for certain medical reasons. The panel discussion kicked off the conference, sponsored by the Burton K. Wheeler Center, on medical marijuana in Montana. It continues today at the Red Lion Colonial Hotel. For the past 40 years, Mercer said, the federal government has been concerned about the use and trafficking of illegal drugs, including marijuana. To fight it, the federal government has tried to deter it by spending money on law enforcement, education and treatment. He said the federal government didn't change that position on medical marijuana until 2009 when the Justice Department under the Obama administration issued a policy statement known as the Ogden memo. "The Department of Justice did sort of a curious thing at the federal level," Mercer said. "A deputy attorney general said as long as your behavior comports with the laws of the state with respect to medical marijuana, you will not be subject to the law enforcement arm of the federal government." Mercer, a Republican who was U.S. attorney for Montana under the Bush administration, was still on the job at the time because the Obama administration had not yet named his replacement. That created a situation "that was tremendously challenging for a lot of people in this room who were relying on that memo," he said. "I said, 'Don't put a lot of confidence in that.' That's just a policy statement. The next attorney general might come in and say, 'No, we're going to do what we were doing in 2004.' Our job is to enforce the law, not to ignore the law," he said. Montana's number of medical marijuana cardholders shot up after the Ogden memo from about 4,000 in September 2009 to 30,000 in June 2011. The total dropped to about 26,500 by last month. "People looked at the federal government and thought they were backing away from their role," Mercer said. The Obama administration took a different tack in June when the Justice Department issued a statement known as the Cole memo that told the DEA and U.S. attorneys to make certain medical marijuana dispensaries top priorities for prosecutors and drug investigators. Sands, who headed a committee last year that studied the issue, said most of the Montanans who were growing medical marijuana thought it was legal and that it should be limited to people with certain medical conditions. She was highly critical of the federal government for not being willing to change its attitude toward medical marijuana. She said 17 states, mostly in the West, have legalized medical marijuana. "There seems -- and I'm not an attorney -- to be no space whatsoever for negotiation, balance, bargaining or anything with the federal government," Sands said. Mercer said he doesn't look for either federal executive branch agencies or Congress to change the antidrug plan it has followed the past 40 years. MacLaren said it was after the Ogden memo's release that the number of Montana's medical marijuana cardholders skyrocketed. "That's when the phone started to ring," he said. "That's when it started to mushroom." That led an interim committee to study the medical marijuana issue last year. The 2011 Legislature passed a law that made it much harder for people to get medical marijuana cards. It was immediately challenged in court by the medical marijuana industry, and a district judge in late June temporarily struck down some key provisions. Opponents also are gathering signatures to put a referendum on the 2012 ballot to let Montanans decide if they want to keep or reject the law. Mercer said as long as the Federal Drug Administrator is the arbiter, he doesn't think the federal government will change its position on marijuana. But Dr. Chris Christensen, a Victor physician who specializes in medical marijuana treatment, said that decision is within the purview of the Drug Enforcement Administration, not the FDA. A federal judge told the DEA several times that it needed to reclassify marijuana, he said, but the agency has refused. He said the federal judiciary needs to review the judge's ruling, because Justice Department officials "have acted incorrectly." Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, said a lot of the problems would go away if medical marijuana was classified more correctly as a schedule two or three drug, not as a schedule one drug as is now. - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.