Friday, April 10, 2009

Pot co-ops can take deep breath

Bay City News 4/10/09

Cindy Chew/The Examiner

Nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries have "little likelihood" of being prosecuted by the feds despite a recent policy shift in Washington, D.C., a U.S. attorney said.

California's voter-approved Compassionate Use Act of 1996 allows seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana with a doctor's permission, but federal laws criminalizing marijuana make no exception for state laws.

While saying that nonprofit cooperatives are unlikely to be targeted, U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello — who supervises federal prosecutions in Northern California — maintained that a policy shift announced last month by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would make little change in federal law enforcement in the area.

Holder said March 18 that the Justice Department now plans to target marijuana distributors that violate both state and federal law, and that "try to use medical marijuana laws as a shield" for drug trafficking.

But Russoniello told UC Hastings College of the Law students during a debate on medical marijuana Wednesday that Holder's announcement is not a "sea change."

Russoniello said the federal policy was, and remains, to "prioritize and focus on the entrepreneurs."

"If you're in the business of selling marijuana for a profit, you're in harm's way," he said. "I suggest to you that even if the attorney general had set no guidelines, we'd be doing the same things as before."

Russoniello's opponent in the debate was Joseph Elford, chief counsel of Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy group.

"It seems odd to me that the federal government would be the adjudicator of whether a dispensary is violating state law" and then would have the power to prosecute in federal court, where the state law can't be cited as a defense, Elford said.

"The government's interpretation of state law may not be our interpretation of state law," he said.

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