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RI governor delays medical pot dispensary permits

May 2, 2011

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Rhode Island has suspended plans to license three medical marijuana dispensaries after the state's top federal prosecutor warned that the dispensaries could be prosecuted for violating federal law.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced Monday that he has placed an indefinite hold on the dispensaries' final permits. Chafee, an independent, said he will consult federal authorities and governors in other states with similar medical marijuana programs before deciding how to proceed.

In a letter delivered Friday, U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha told Chafee that while federal authorities wouldn't target medical marijuana users, the dispensaries could face criminal prosecution for growing and distributing marijuana. Neronha said authorities could seize marijuana from the dispensaries if they are allowed to operate.

Similar letters were sent to other states that have or are considering using licensed dispensaries to supply medical marijuana.

"Friday's letter makes it clear that DOJ (Department of Justice) will now pursue certain commercial cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana, even if such cultivation and distribution is permitted by state law," Chafee said in a statement.

The state's three so-called compassion centers were hoping to receive final approval to open this summer after completing employee background checks and building inspections.

As of Monday, 3,459 people had registered with the state's medical marijuana program. Rhode Island is one of fifteen states that have legalized pot for medical purposes.

Seth Bock, chief executive of the Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center of Portsmouth, had hoped to open his facility in August.

Greenleaf plans to grow marijuana and dispense it on-site. Bock received a building permit Monday to allow him to renovate his building, but he's going to postpone much of the work until the legal questions facing his dispensary are resolved.

While he was disappointed by Chafee's decision to withhold the permits, Bock said he understands the need for caution. He said he hopes that Chafee's discussions with other governors could settle the problem permanently.

"I certainly didn't get into this to spend time behind bars," said Bock, a doctor of acupuncture. "But we're not going to throw in the towel. Maybe this will be the turning point when enough people rise up and say this is ridiculous and needs to change."

The other authorized dispensaries are Summit Medical Compassion Center of Warwick and the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center of Providence.