New DOJ Attack on State Medical Marijuana Laws Could Land Feds Back in Court

Guest blogger Allen Hopper ponders the impact of letters sent recently by U.S. Attorneys to officials in medical marijuana states: will they affect an ACLU lawsuit alleging 10th amendment violations in the federal government’s prosecution of a Santa Cruz medical marijuana collective? or the enforcement of medical marijuana laws more generally? Hopper is the Police Practices Director for the ACLU of Northern California and previously coordinated drug policy-related litigation as the Litigation Director for the National ACLU’s Drug Law Reform Project.  A nationally recognized expert on marijuana law reform, he has been quoted extensively in the media, worked cases in state and federal courts, and testified before legislative committees on issues related to the intersection of federal and state drug laws. 

Allen Hopper

U.S. Attorneys in at least seven states recently sent letters to state government officials threatening to vigorously prosecute medical marijuana distribution–regardless of individual state law protections. Patient advocates have rightly cried foul, pointing to the so-called “Ogden Memo”—an October 2009 DOJ letter instructing federal prosecutors to refocus enforcement efforts away from providers operating in accordance with state medical marijuana laws. Despite the ominous sabre rattling, however, there have been no recent raids on state-registered dispensaries in any of the states that tightly regulate medical marijuana distribution.

So, what are these threatening new letters really about? In a letter to Attorney General Holder last week, the ACLU suggested that the federal government is improperly attempting to influence the states’ legislative processes. The ACLU points out that several of these letters landed on state officials’ desks just as new state laws regulating medical marijuana were about to be enacted. The Governor of Washington, for instance, vetoed a popular medical marijuana bill after receiving a letter from U.S. Attorneys threatening to prosecute state officials who license and regulate dispensaries. If the ACLU is right about the real purpose behind these U.S. Attorney letters, the feds may be opening a can of worms they’ll wish they hadn’t. A federal lawsuit put on hold in 2009 after the DOJ issued the Ogden Memo could be reopened, with court-ordered discovery into federal enforcement practices.

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