ACLU Calls on Governor Chafee to Issue Medical Marijuana Dispensary Licenses
Posted: May, 04, 2011
The Rhode Island ACLU has today called upon Governor Lincoln Chafee to issue certificates of registration to three medical marijuana dispensaries approved by the Department of Health, notwithstanding a threatening letter sent last week by U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha suggesting that those dispensaries may be criminally liable under federal law.
RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today that holding up issuance of the registrations, as the Governor did on Monday in response to the threat of criminal prosecution, “is directly contrary to state law and, in any event, is not mandated in any way by Mr. Neronha’s disturbing letter.” Brown’s three-page letter to the Governor further raised concerns about both the content of Mr. Neronha’s letter and its timing.
In October 2009, a Department of Justice memo relating to state medical marijuana laws, and relied on by Neronha, advised U.S. Attorneys in those states that, “as a general matter,” they “should not focus federal resources … on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana,” while “prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority of the Department.” (emphasis added)
The ACLU letter to the Governor notes that state law requires that the dispensaries approved by the Department of Health be non-profit organizations. Thus, since the dispensaries are “in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana,” and they are not involved in “unlawfully market[ing] and sell[ing] marijuana for profit,” the ACLU pointed out that in accordance with the 2009 memo, and contrary “to Mr. Neronha’s asseverations, these dispensaries should not be a federal enforcement priority and the letter should not be a basis for undoing the will of the General Assembly and the carefully considered work of the Health Department.”
Noting that the DOH’s decision to approve the three dispensaries was the culmination of a highly publicized and open two-year process, the ACLU also argued that the timing of the U.S. Attorney’s letter “creates the appearance that the Department of Justice is unfairly using its law enforcement and prosecutorial functions in order to undermine the outcome of a lengthy and public process where its input could have been offered. While the federal government may have a legitimate interest in the outcome of state legislation or rule-making and may seek to affect those outcomes by political means, we believe the U.S. Attorney’s last-minute attempt to derail this two-year old law is an abuse of those powers.”
The letter adds: “State law mandates the issuance of these registrations. Nothing in federal law or Mr. Neronha’s letter prevents the State from exercising its clear obligation under state law to issue those certificates. Upon issuance of those registrations, it will then be up to the dispensaries themselves to decide how to respond to the U.S. Attorney’s threats.” Failing to issue the certificates, Brown noted, “deprives the aggrieved dispensaries of any opportunity to question or challenge the validity of Mr. Neronha’s position. Perhaps most importantly, it deprives suffering patients of the hope that they will soon receive the medicine they need.”
The letter argues that the state law “and the detailed regulations implementing it promote both public health and public safety. …The impropriety of Mr. Neronha’s threats, and the degree to which his position varies from Department of Justice policy, support your taking a position affirming Rhode Island law. … We urge you to reconsider your position, and to instead issue the letters of registration to the three DOH-approved dispensaries.”