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US Attorney issues warning on medical pot centers

By David Klepper
Associated Press / April 26, 2012
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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Rhode Island's top federal prosecutor has cautioned property owners intending to lease space to medical marijuana dispensaries that they could face forfeiture proceedings.

U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha sent the warning letters this week, according to his spokesman Jim Martin. Neronha had previously warned that the dispensaries, their landlords or investors could face civil or criminal sanctions, including the seizure of assets or property.

The latest warning was discussed during a meeting between Neronha and Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Tuesday. During the meeting, which was sought by Chafee, Neronha restated that while prosecutors might target large-scale marijuana operations, they don't intend to prosecute ill patients using medicinal marijuana, Martin said.

Seth Bock, chief executive of the Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center of Portsmouth, said he is "definitely concerned and somewhat shocked" to hear about Neronha's new warning, but he remains hopeful that the dispensaries will be allowed to open and serve patients. He said his landlord has not contacted him about receiving Neronha's letter.

"From every possible angle what we are proposing here in Rhode Island is going to be beneficial," Bock said.

Chafee, an independent, blocked three state-selected dispensaries -- known as compassion centers -- from opening last year after Neronha warned the state and the dispensaries of the possibility of federal prosecution.

Chafee supports legislation that would seek to avoid federal intervention by placing limits on the amount of marijuana dispensaries could distribute. The dispensaries could open within months if the legislation is adopted.

Neronha did not weigh in on the legislation during the meeting with Chafee, but he did discuss the letters sent to property owners, Martin said.

"The meeting was at the request of the governor," Martin said. "The office does not intend to take any positions on the legislation.... we can't give legal opinions. We can only state our position."

Chafee's spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the meeting.

Sen. Rhoda Perry, D-Providence, attended the meeting and said Neronha would not say whether the legislation would assuage the concerns of federal prosecutors.

"At this point there is no information," Perry said. "He just sort of reiterated what has already been said. I personally think it (the meeting) was a matter of courtesy."

Rhode Island now allows patients to legally possess small amounts of marijuana. Lawmakers also authorized dispensaries where patients could obtain marijuana in a state-regulated environment.

Besides Greenleaf, the other two dispensaries chosen by the state are the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence and Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick.

More than 4,400 Rhode Islanders are now enrolled in the state's medical marijuana program.

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