On Oct. 19, the Justice Department circulated a memorandum to federal prosecutors in Rhode Island and the other 13 medical marijuana states instructing them not to prosecute individuals using medical marijuana or those involved in dispensary operations that are "in clear and unambiguous compliance" with state laws. The move was hailed by medical marijuana advocates such as Stephen Gutwillig, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who called it "an extremely welcome rhetorical de-escalation of the federal government's long-standing war on medical marijuana patients." We generally approve of ending wars but, as Americans have learned recently, winning the peace can be just as important. In this context, that would be Rhode Island taking advantage of the unprecedented window of opportunity created by the Justice memo to develop a superior medical marijuana distribution system.
We should first be clear that the new federal guidelines do not forbid all prosecution. Dispensaries and patients that are in violation of state laws can be still raided by local authorities. Additionally, not all federal prosecution has been taken off the table. The two most important loopholes allow federal prosecutors to go after dispensaries otherwise in compliance with state laws if they either believe the dispensaries are selling marijuana for profit (as opposed to the standard non-profit model) or if a prosecution would further "important federal interests," presumably meaning the arrest of drug traffickers.
One might wonder whether, given such broad exceptions, the new memo really is good news for Rhode Island. San Francisco's crusading federal attorney, Joseph Russoniello, has gone after San Francisco dispensaries on the grounds that they make a profit since August. Is there anything to prevent the same thing from happening in Rhode Island?
Yes: more transparency. The more open Rhode Island makes the operations of its proposed dispensaries, the less pretext federal prosecutors will have to raid them on trumped up charges. More transparent operations will significantly decrease the incentives for players in the illegal drug trade to get involved with dispensaries, as it will make them more vulnerable to prosecution.
Significant transparency is possible in the status quo. According to the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, the amendment allowing for dispensaries contains provisions requiring "good oversight and recordkeeping procedures." Once Rhode Island officials have cleared that hurdle, possibilities for innovation abound.
As we've noted before, there are a number of flaws in the dispensary systems used by California. Now that Rhode Island knows exactly what the federal government expects from it (at least during President Obama's term), it has a chance to develop policies that improve on the current model.
Rhode Island should consult with law enforcement and patient advocacy groups like RIPAC as to what these new guidelines might permit in terms of policies the state might not have implemented in a climate of uncertainty about federal action. Such consultation would help the state to develop procedures that could benefit local patients and governments and, by serving as a model, patients and state governments nationwide. If so, the Justice memo will mark a huge step forward in the United States' twisted history with drug policy.
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