Pubdate: Fri, 06 Apr 2012
Source: Call, The (Woonsocket, RI)
Copyright: 2012 The Call.
Author: Jim Baron


WOONSOCKET -- Sometimes painted as the Molly Hatchet of the Rhode
Island medical marijuana movement, putting the axe to the state's
three proposed compassion centers before they had a chance to open,
U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha says he just wants to make sure everyone
knows where his office stands on the issue so there will be "no
surprises" when, and if, a dispensary opens up.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee put the licensing of three compassion centers that
had gone through two lengthy Department of Health application
processes on hold after receiving a letter from Neronha saying the
centers could be subject to raids and their employees subject to

Now lawmakers, working with Chafee, have reworked compassion center
legislation but Neronha said nobody has discussed the proposed measure
with him. He is making no promises about the acceptability of the new

"We don't have an issue with individuals who are sick, cancer patients
who are really truly sick, and we don't have an issue with their
individual caregivers," Neronha explained on a recent visit to The
Call office. "What the department does take issue with are commercial,
large-scale marijuana enterprises and certainly the three dispensaries
proposed in Rhode Island were, in my view, large-scale, commercial,
for-profit enterprises. Nothing in this legislation has changed."

Citing the applications made by owners of one of the proposed
facilities, the Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick, it would
start by employing 45 people and that by its third year of operation
it expected to have 80 people on staff plus 12 security guards.
Although the operation would be required to be non-profit, it expected
to lose $844,000 in the first year but by the second year would take
in $13 million, $7.8 million of that above expenses. There were even
rosier projections for the third year: $23.4 in revenue, $16.5 beyond
what its owners expected to spend.

By the third year, the developers anticipated having about 8,000
patients under their care, which, under the law, would have allowed
them to grow 96,000 marijuana plants.

"I can not ignore a 96,000 plant facility," Neronha said. "That's not
a small, individual, non-profit grow. That is an industrial grow facility.

"The issue for us is not if it is legal or illegal, it is clearly
illegal under federal law," he said. "The question is, how should we
use our federal resources? We're not going to use them on the ill
patient who has cancer and believes that this is helping. But we are
definitely going to use them on 96,000-plant grows. Things of this
magnitude can not go unnoticed."

Neronha likened it to a police officer who sees a car go by at 65 or
70 m.p.h. when the speed limit is 55, and might let it go. But when
the next car goes by at 105 m.p.h., "the lights are going to go on and
it is going to get pulled over."

So how much marijuana is too much for a U.S. Attorney to

Neronha won't say.

"You are asking me to say, for something that is illegal, how illegal
does it have to be. I'm not comfortable answering that question," was
his answer. "While I understand the question, and I understand why
people want to know, I can't answer the question."

The problem is, medical marijuana patients make the point that they
are using the drug as medicine and therefore need a reliable,
year-long supply. If a patient must rely on an individual caregiver to
supply his or her medicine and that person is hit with an extended
power outage or some other problem, such as insects, that can ruin an
entire crop, the patient may be forced to go several months without
medicine. That is one of the reasons that the patients championed the
compassion center concept.

But Neronha balked at the idea of helping craft acceptable

"Last year, looking at it objectively and fairly, my position probably
caught some people unawares," he acknowledged. "I'm not sure why it
did, but I can see why it might have.

"What concerns me this time around is that when I read in the press
that there has been a compromise, I'm not a party to that compromise.
Nobody reached out to me and asked me. I'm certainly not going to go
up and testify about state legislation. Department policy doesn't
allow me to do it and it is not something I am going to do. Certainly,
if someone were to ask me specifically what my thoughts are, I would
tell them. But it is really not the job of a federal prosecutor to
weigh in on state policy except to remind people of what federal law
is and what the options are. I want to make sure going into this
process that there isn't any confusion to what our position is. I just
don't want anybody to be surprised if we take action should these
things open."

Neronha suggested that the presence of medical marijuana dispensaries
tend to greatly increase the number of patients who find a need for
them. He cited Montana as an example, saying its population of right
around 1 million people is similar to Rhode Island's. When
dispensaries opened in that state, he said, the number of medical
marijuana cardholders exploded from 3,000 to 30,000. The Montana
legislature eventually repealed the dispensary law.

Pointing to a statistic that there are 42 medical marijuana
cardholders for every 100,000 Rhode Islanders without the compassion
centers while Maine, which does have the facilities operating has only
20 cardholders per 100,000 -- that tells me there is an appetite for
marijuana that does not exist in Maine."

"Once the cork is out of the bottle, it is very hard to put it back
in," Neronha said. "That is my concern; that it is going to be very
hard to undo the damage once it happens. And I have to tell you, if
there is damage, it won't be damage that the federal government will
be dealing with.

"If there is an explosion of marijuana use as a result of these
dispensaries, which I think there is every indication that there will
be, by that I mean improper use of it -- people driving under the
influence of marijuana, the marijuana found in schools, the marijuana
being used by people who shouldn't be using it, those are not going to
be federal enforcement problems, those are going to be state and local
problems. I feel it is important with respect to these dispensaries
that we make our views clear in advance to what the possibilities are.
We'll have to wait and see if they do open as to what our response
will be."
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