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Colorado Medical Marijuana Law Now in Effect

Governor and Attorney General urge Feds to bust patients, but Feds say no thanks.
 
 
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As of June 1, Colorado joined the growing list of states with active medical marijuana programs. The move comes in the wake of last November's voter approval of Amendment 20, the medical marijuana initiative sponsored by Coloradans for Medical Rights and its parent group, California-based Americans for Medical Rights, and after the Colorado legislature passed necessary implementing legislation this spring.

As of June 7th, the state registry for medical marijuana patients had sent off 150 applications to patients and received 13 completed application forms, registry administrator Gail Kelsey told DRCNet. Ten medical marijuana program ID cards have already been sent to patients, Kelsey said. "We expect about 800 patients this year, based on the experience in Oregon, which operates a similar program," Kelsey told DRCNet.

If Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Attorney General Ken Salazar had their druthers, those people would be behind bars. They went so far as to ask the US Attorney for Colorado to prosecute medical marijuana patients, and also attempted to scare doctors away from the program. In a joint statement released on May 31st, the day before the medical marijuana program went into effect, the two opponents of the measure wrote:

"... [W]e remind anyone intending to register for the program -- as well as physicians considering prescribing marijuana to their patients -- that it remains a federal crime to possess, manufacture, distribute or dispense marijuana. To fulfill our duties under federal law, we are today contacting the Colorado Medical Association to remind the physicians of Colorado that doctors who dispense marijuana for any purpose risk federal criminal prosecution. We are also writing the acting United States Attorney for the District of Colorado to encourage the criminal prosecution of anyone who attempts to use this state program to circumvent federal anti-drug laws."

Calling the voter-approved program "an absurd and wasteful state-sanctioned protest vehicle against federal drug laws" with "no apparently valid legal purpose," the disgruntled duo also urged the federal courts and Congress to act against medical marijuana.

But Owens' and Salazar's effort to intimidate patients, caregivers and physicians ran into a wall of indifference from acting US Attorney for Colorado Richard Spriggs. "We in the US Attorney's Office are truly grateful to Gov. Owens and Attorney General Salazar for sharing their problem with us," Spriggs wrote in statement released later that same day. "We, however, are not the solution to their problem. That solution (if there is one) lies with the 22 duly elected district attorneys and local police. Neither the governor nor the attorney general should engage in unfounded speculation about who might be prosecuted in federal court," Spriggs chided.

When queried about Attorney General Salazar's apparent poke in the eye to Colorado voters, Deputy Attorney General Ken Lane told DRCNet "that doesn't matter to us." When pressed on the issue, Lane qualified his response. "The Attorney General upheld the validity of the law," Lane said, "but federal law is an entirely different matter."

Still, it appears the Attorney General's crusade to sic the feds on medical marijuana patients is at an end. "We are making no further efforts" to involve the federal government," Lane told DRCNet.

Even if the Attorney General's Office wished to assist federal prosecutors, Amendment 20 limits its ability to do so. Colorado Solicitor General Alan Gilbert told the Denver Post that regardless of his boss's position, the Attorney General's Office must comply with the law's confidentiality provisions. "We will defend as vigorously as we can the confidentiality of the registry," Gilbert said, adding that the department would fight any federal attempt to subpoena such information. To breach the confidentiality of the registry is a misdemeanor criminal violation under the enabling legislation passed this spring.

Health department spokeswoman Cindy Parmenter echoed Gilbert's position. "The concern is what would happen if federal agents wanted the names of everyone who applied," Parmenter told the Associated Press. "The law says we will keep the names confidential, and it's our plan to do that."

Julie Roach of Coloradans for Medical Rights told DRCNet that while Owens' and Salazar's statement probably scared off some patients and doctors, she does not expect a federal crackdown on medical marijuana patients. "I don't see the feds going after patients. These are sick people who are going through a difficult time. Federal agents are not doing this in other states with medical marijuana laws," she said.

"I think the governor and the attorney general were looking for a way out, but this only blew up in their faces," Roach continued. "Both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, which editorialized against Amendment 20, came out and said the governor and the attorney general should not oppose the new law. We are totally disappointed with their statement, but it is mainly making them look bad. It looks like they are spitting in the face of the voters. I had hoped the governor and the attorney general would uphold and protect the Colorado constitution. That is their job."

Under the Colorado program, which was largely based on Oregon's two-year-old program, patients with specified illnesses -- including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/ADS and multiple sclerosis -- must obtain a letter from their doctor saying they could benefit from marijuana. The patient then mails the doctor's letter along with a $140 nonrefundable fee to the Colorado Public Health and Environment Department. After health department employees assigned to the marijuana patient registry verify the doctor's letter, they send the patient an ID card good for one year. Patients will have to pay the $140 fee each year. Caregivers can also obtain IDs under the Colorado program.

Registered patients can legally possess up to two ounces of prepared marijuana, six plants (only three of which can be in flower), and smoking paraphernalia. Buying marijuana, however, remains a crime, even for registered patients. Misrepresenting a medical condition to obtain a card, misusing or stealing a card, or altering or counterfeiting cards are misdemeanor offenses.

Colorado's medical marijuana rules can be read at online.

Readers who wish to explain the concept of democracy to Gov. Owens and AG Salazar may contact them at governorowens@state.co.us and attorney.general@state.co.us, respectively.