[Editor’s note: This post is excerpted from this week’s forthcoming NORML weekly media advisory. To have NORML’s news alerts and legislative advisories delivered straight to your in-box, sign up here.]
Democrat Gov. Jack Markell has abruptly halted plans to implement legislation passed in 2011 that allows qualified patients to obtain marijuana from state-licensed facilities.
Governor Markell had initially signed the law, Senate Bill 17, The Delaware Medical Marijuana Act, last May. Under the law, patients with a qualifying illness may legally possess up to six ounces of cannabis, provided they obtained it from a state-licensed, not-for-profit ‘compassion center.’ State regulators were anticipated to begin licensing marijuana producers and distributors later this year.
On Friday, Gov. Markell announced that he was suspending the program because his office had received a letter from the Obama Justice Department alleging that it would subject those licensed under the law, as well as public servants, to federal criminal prosecution.
States the letter, authored by US Attorney Charles M. Oberly III, “[G]rowing, distributing and possessing marijuana, in any capacity, other than as part of a federally authorized research program, is a violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities. Moreover, those who engage in financial transactions involving the proceeds of such activities may also be in violation of federal money laundering statutes.”
The letter further threatens, “State employees who conduct activities mandated by the Delaware Medical Marijuana Act are not immune from liability under” the Controlled Substances Act.
Justice Department officials sent similar letters to lawmakers and governors in states considering related legislation last spring. Shortly after receiving the letters, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed legislation that sought to allow for licensed cannabis dispensaries in that state. Soon thereafter, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee also nixed regulations allowing for the state-licensed production and distribution of cannabis.
In a statement issued by Gov. Markell on Friday, he claimed that the federal government left him with no choice but to suspend the law’s implementation. “To do otherwise would put our state employees in legal jeopardy, and I will not do that,” he said.
In response to the Governor’s actions, sponsors of the law have suggested amending the Medical Marijuana Act to allow for qualified patients to cultivate cannabis at home, a practice that is presently allowed under state law in 14 other states.
To date, three states – Colorado, Maine, and New Mexico – have issued licenses to allow for the state-sanctioned production and distribution of cannabis. So far, programs in those states have operated largely without federal interference.
Similar licensing legislation approved in recent years in Arizona, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington, DC has yet to be implemented by local lawmakers.