Pubdate: Tue, 20 Mar 2012
Source: Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ)
Copyright: 2012 The Arizona Republic
Author: Yvonne Wingett Sanchez



State fails to get immunity pledge by Yvonne Wingett Sanchez - The

The U.S. Department of Justice has reiterated its warning that state
employees are subject to federal prosecution for implementing the
state's medical-marijuana program.

One high-ranking state official pointed out that the letter
exemplifies the tough position that Arizona authorities are in:
Federal law says they can't participate in the program, yet a judge
has ordered them to follow through on the will of Arizona voters.

In a Feb. 16 letter, Acting U.S. Attorney Ann Birmingham Scheel wrote
to Gov. Jan Brewer that her office will continue to "vigorously
enforce" federal laws against those who "operate and facilitate large
marijuana production facilities and marijuana production facilities
involved in the cultivation, sale and distribution of marijuana, even
if purportedly for medical purposes."

Scheel said that state employees who participate in the Arizona
Medical Marijuana Act "are not immune from liability" under the
federal Controlled Substances Act.

However, Scheel wrote that seriously ill patients and caregivers who
use pot as medically recommended treatment "will likely not be the
focus of the (U.S. Attorney's Office's) limited prosecutorial resources."

Brewer will not change course and will allow the the state's program
to move forward, her spokesman said Monday.

"This doesn't change anything for us," said Matthew Benson, adding
that the letter "leaves most of the governor's questions unanswered"
partly because it doesn't address whether state employees face
imminent prosecution for participating in the program.

Arizona's medical-marijuana program was created in 2010 after voters
passed a law that allows people with certain debilitating medical
conditions to use pot. They must register with the state, which issues
identification cards to qualified patients and caregivers. Under the
law, the state will set up and regulate up to 126 dispensaries.

The governor filed suit days before the dispensary application process
was to begin, stalling the process. She wanted to clarify whether
federal drug laws override state laws. The governor dropped the suit
after a judge refused to rule on it.

In a separate action, a state judge then ordered state officials to
implement the program.

Last January, Brewer asked Scheel to clarify whether state employees
would be off the hook when participating in the medical-marijuana
program. The governor asked for clear guidance on the Justice
Department's enforcement position and also asked that state workers be
advised on the potential civil and criminal ramifications of their

Benson said many of the governor's questions remain unanswered. "Their
position remains sort of nebulous," he said.

Arizona and 15 other states have medical-marijuana laws that conflict
with federal law, which outlaws the cultivation, sale or use of
marijuana. Mounting federal pressure in California, Washington and
other states has led to dispensary raids and crackdowns on landlords
who lease property to dispensaries.

Recently, several U.S. Attorneys have sent letters to local officials
reiterating that federal authorities have not changed their stance on
the use of medical marijuana. Earlier this month, for example, Rhode
Island's top federal prosecutor reiterated to local officials that
federal officials have not endorsed a proposal to allow medical-pot
dispensaries to open and remain opposed to large-scale

Will Humble, director of the state Department of Health Services, said
the state is in a difficult position when it comes to implementing the

On one hand, federal authorities are warning there is no "safe harbor
or immunity" from federal prosecution, but on the other a state judge
has ordered them to move forward with the program.

"We're caught between a rock and a hard place -- we're stuck," he

Humble said no state health employees will be allowed to "volunteer"
to work on the medical-pot program; no one will be forced to work on
it, either. He said workers will go through a series of training in
how to act responsibly and safely when working on the program.
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MAP posted-by: Matt