Dow resends guidance letter to Justice on medical marijuana; advocates and opponents apply full-court press

TRENTON – Since April, N.J. Attorney General Paula Dow has waited for the U.S. Department of Justice to clarify its position  on the potential prosecution of employees connected to the distribution of medical marijuana, but having not heard a response since, she resubmitted the letter this week.

In the meantime, advocacy groups for and against the “compassionate” use of the drug are turning up the pressure.

Dow sat down with the Coalition for Medical Marijuana NJ this week to discuss its concerns over hesitation to move forward with the program. Ken Wolski, executive director of the coalition, said the meeting was productive, but he now wants to meet with Christie as well.

Thursday, a band of organizations opposing the new state law – Fraternal Order of Police, Federation for Drug-Free Communities, Medical Society of New Jersey, Family Policy Council, and others – requested that Dow also hear their side.

“We respectfully request that you also meet with those who opposed the ‘medical’ marijuana bill and who advocate for safe and approved medicines,” organizer Dave Evans wrote Dow. He proposed discussing, among other things, “The real story behind ‘medical’ marijuana.”

Dow’s office said they have received the letter, but would not comment further.

Before New Jersey’s medical marijuana bill passed the Legislature, Gov. Chris Christie threatened a veto if further restrictions weren’t put on the program, which advocates at the time called overly restrictive.

When Christie and upper-chamber sponsor state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, (D-22), of Linden, found themselves at odds, the governor allied himself with “compassionate use” advocate Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-15), of Princeton, the lower chamber sponsor, to reach a compromise. Gusciora said he didn’t want patients in need of relief to wait any longer, and said the program can be revisited if it’s not working.

In April, Dow requested guidance from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on whether the program presented legal issues for the licensed growers, dispensers, or state employees who monitor the law.

Dow’s letter was sent after the governor of Washington State, where the Legislature is also considering a medical marijuana program, received his own letter from two U.S. Attorneys threatening prosecution of dispensaries and state employees tasked with administering the medical marijuana program under the federal controlled substances act.

Dow wrote: “As the State’s chief legal adviser to all of the departments in the Executive Branch, many of which are participating in carrying out the medical marijuana legislation, it is critical that I properly advise them as to the potential criminal and civil ramifications of their actions in carrying out their duties…Accordingly, I ask that you provide me with clear guidance as to the enforcement position of the Department of Justice relative to New Jersey’s medical marijuana legislation and the scope of the entities and individuals who may be subject to civil suit or criminal prosecution.”

The Coalition for Medical Marijuana NJ said that Dow told the group when they met this week that she sent a follow-up letter to the DOJ on May 23. Dow’s office confirmed the resubmission, but stopped short of an explanation.

A source close to the developing situation said the federal government will have a hard time avoiding a position on prosecution of state employees: “She asked the question directly,” which puts New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman in a difficult situation.

In Colorado, the source said, state employees were privately told that they wouldn’t be prosecuted, while in Rhode Island, they were told that they could be prosecuted.

Attempting to address the concerns, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) submitted the “State’s Medical Marijuana Protection Act of 2011” this week, which would explicitly exempt people complying with state medical marijuana laws from federal arrest and prosecution. Dow resends guidance letter to Justice on medical marijuana; advocates and opponents apply full-court press