Feds warn Arizona over medical marijuana

PHOENIX - The federal government reiterated to Arizona that it will prosecute state workers for implementing the medical-marijuana program.

In a Feb. 16 letter to Gov. Jan Brewer, Acting U.S. Attorney Ann Birmingham Scheel said her office will continue to "vigorously enforce" federal laws against those who operate and facilitate large marijuana production facilities and marijuana production facilities involved in the selling of marijuana for medical use.

Scheel said that state employees who participate in the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act "are not immune from liability" under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

However, Scheel wrote that seriously ill patients and caregivers who use pot as medically recommended treatment "will likely not be the focus of the (U.S. Attorney's Office's) limited prosecutorial resources."

Brewer spokesman Matt Benson told The Arizona Republic the governor will not change course and will allow the state's medical marijuana program to move forward.

"This doesn't change anything for us," Benson said, adding that the letter "leaves most of the governor's questions unanswered" partly because it doesn't address whether state employees face imminent prosecution for participating in the program.

Arizona's medical-marijuana program was created in 2010 after voters passed a law that allows people with certain debilitating medical conditions to use marijuana.

Patients must register with the state, which issues identification cards to qualified patients and caregivers. Under the law, the state will set up and regulate up to 126 dispensaries.

Arizona and 15 other states have medical-marijuana laws that conflict with federal law, which outlaws the cultivation, sale or use of marijuana. Mounting federal pressure in California, Washington and other states has led to dispensary raids and crackdowns on landlords who lease property to dispensaries.

Will Humble, director of the state Department of Health Services, said the state is in a difficult position when it comes to implementing the medical marijuana program.

On one hand, federal authorities warning there is no "safe harbor or immunity" from federal prosecution, but on the other hand a state judge has ordered them to move forward with the program.

"We're caught between a rock and a hard place -- we're stuck," Humble said.

No state health employees will be allowed to "volunteer" to work on the medical-pot program and no one will be forced to work on it, either, he said.

Workers will go through a series of training in how to act responsibly and safely when working on the program, Humble said.

In January, a federal judge dismissed Brewer's lawsuit asking for a ruling on whether the state can implement its medical marijuana law when the drug remains prohibited under federal law.

U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton said the case wasn't legally eligible for court consideration because the state hasn't established a genuine threat of prosecution of state employees for administering the law, as Brewer had claimed.

Bolton's order allowed the lawsuit to be refiled within 30 days if Brewer could prove a real threat of prosecution.

Brewer said she wouldn't refile a federal lawsuit and the state would start accepting and processing applications for dispensaries once a legal challenge to the state's rules is resolved. That case is pending in state court.

The judge's order dismissing the suit granted motions filed by the federal government and supporters of the medical marijuana law.


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