Holder Skates Around Medical Marijuana Issue

Attorney General Eric Holder is in town today, hosted by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. And a brief press conference at the Institutue for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence was, predictably, dominated by questions about medical marijuana.

U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha delivered a letter to Governor Chafee in late April threatening to prosecute operators of the three medical marijuana dispensaries, or "compassion centers," set to open in the coming months. Chafee then put a hold on the "compassion center" program.

Neronha was one of several US attorneys around the country who have sent similar letters to governors or state legislators, raising the hackles of patient advocates who say the move marks a reversal for the Obama Administration, which strongly suggested in 2009 that it would give a pass to those complying with state-level medical marijuana laws and train its prosecutorial powers on traffickers hiding behind those laws.

With Neronha at his side today, Holder largely sidestepped questions on the matter, saying repeatedly that the Department of Justice is working to "clarify" the policy.

But he did seem to suggest that the original policy was intended to carve out an exception for patients alone.

"As we made that policy change, that policy pronouncement," he said, "it was something that we viewed in a very narrow way, to deal with people who, as I said, had end-stage diseases, chronic diseases, where there was the possibility, the expectation, that the use of marijuana would alleviate the pain that they might be [forced to] deal with as a consequence of their diseases."

He didn't explicitly say that this "narrow" carve-out excluded dispensaries. But one was left with that impression. That doesn't bode well for patient advocates, who argue that compassion centers are vital in improving access - and maintain that the Obama Administration's original policy was wider in scope.

US Attorneys around the country have raised concerns that dispensaries lead to an explosion in marijuana distribution, with many who don't have legitimate medical conditions getting access. That is a concern in Rhode Island, though local advocates argue that the state's dispensary regime is smaller than those in other states, reducing the potential for abuse.

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