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US warns on R.I. marijuana dispensaries

Justice Dept. says state law no shield from prosecution

By Erika Niedowski
Associated Press / July 2, 2011

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PROVIDENCE - The US Department of Justice has warned that large-scale medical marijuana dispensaries in Rhode Island could face federal prosecution for violating drug and money-laundering laws.

A memo obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday says that marijuana dispensaries could be prosecuted even in states where medical marijuana is legal.

Governor Lincoln Chafee suspended plans to license three dispensaries in the state after US Attorney Peter Neronha warned in April that opening such centers could lead to federal prosecution.

Michael Trainor, a spokesman for Chafee, on Thursday night confirmed receipt of the memo dated Wednesday from Neronha’s office. He said it is under review by the governor’s chief legal counsel and declined to comment further.

Jim Martin, a spokesman for Neronha, also declined to comment.

Sixteen states, including Rhode Island, have legalized the medical use of marijuana - actions that have prompted the Justice Department to take a tougher position on the issue.

The memorandum is aimed at clarifying earlier guidance from the department to federal prosecutors in states that have legalized marijuana.

In it, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole wrote that the department’s earlier memo was “never intended to shield such activities from federal enforcement action and prosecution, even where those activities purport to comply with state law.’’

That earlier memo specified that federal law enforcement interest in marijuana focused on illegal drug trafficking and not on individuals with cancer or other illnesses who were using marijuana - or caregivers who were administering it - as part of their treatments.

But since then, Cole said, there has been an increase in the scope of commercial cultivation, sale and distribution of marijuana for “purported medical purposes.’’ Tens of thousands of marijuana plants could yield revenue in the millions of dollars.

State laws are “not a defense’’ to civil or criminal enforcement of federal law, Cole said.

“Persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling, or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law,’’ he said.

Those individuals could also face federal money-laundering charges, according to Cole.

The Department of Health in March selected three dispensaries to distribute medical marijuana: the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence; Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick; and Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth.