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Chafee Sent Signals on Medical Marijuana

Lincoln Chafee's announcement yesterday that he would refuse to license three medical marijuana dispensaries hit pot activists hard. But it was not unexpected.

Some quick background, here. The General Assembly approved a dispensary law in 2009 and the state selected three would-be operators. But then US Attorney Peter Neronha, like several US Attorneys around the country, penned a letter warning that the feds would crack down on largescale distributors authorized by state government.

Chafee put a temporary hold on the dispensaries, which seemed a reasonable move. But as the dust began to settle, activists called on the administration to call the feds' bluff - allow the dispensaries, which have widespread public support, to open and dare the feds to bust them with a presidential election approaching.  

The administration's early signals - that it took Neronha's letter seriously - were not encouraging. But there was more. Activists, in recent weeks, were saying the governor seemed inclined to go back to the legislature and pursue a "fix" to the state's dispensary law that would significantly curtail the size of those dispensaries.

When I interviewed the governor in his office on Wednesday, he made similar statements, suggesting he would go back to the General Assembly and "really look at the expansiveness of our compassion centers." It is the size of the dispensaries, he said, that is "waving a red flag in front of the federal government."

Chafee's statement yesterday made reference to going back to the legislature. But it seemed to take a harder line on compassion centers themselves - making no suggestion that shrunken dispensaries could do the trick. The opening line:

After much internal and external discussion and research, I have decided that the State of Rhode Island cannot proceed with the licensing and regulation of medical marijuana compassion centers under current law.

I've placed a call to the governor's office for clarification and will post any response.

I asked the governor, in our interview Wednesday, why he wouldn't consider calling the feds' bluff, as Republican Governor Chris Christie has in New Jersey. Chafee suggested Christie's move was more about party politics than anything else. "When he said this is not political, he could not contain the smile," Chafee said. "It's very, very political."

He's probably right about that. But it doesn't change the fact that Christie saw fit to call the feds' bluff. Why, activists are wondering, couldn't Chafee do the same?

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