Medical marijuana bill progresses, despite prosecution threats elsewhere

Top state lawmakers in Connecticut are pushing ahead with plans to legalize marijuana for medicinal use, despite recent warnings to officials in other states of possible federal prosecution.

“States have a right to decide this for themselves,” said Michael P. Lawlor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s senior criminal justice adviser.

Malloy and Democratic leaders are proposing allowing physicians to write prescriptions that would permit their patients to grow marijuana indoors. The current bill does not provide for operation of marijuana dispensaries, as other states’ laws do, but some backers are considering a dispensary amendment.

Hetherington and fox

Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. John Hetherington (l) and co-chair Rep. Gerald Fox: What will federal prosecutors do?

U.S. attorneys in several states, including Washington and Rhode Island, have warned state officials that while the Justice Department does not plan to prosecute sick people who use marijuana for medical purposes, it is prepared to prosecute those who grow or distribute the substance, regardless of state law.

The letters have led Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire to pull back from plans to license marijuana dispensaries in those states.

But Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford and the  Judiciary Committee co-chairman, said Tuesday that while he is keeping an eye on the potential legal challenges going on in other states, he does not believe that will kill the momentum of this bill.

“I don’t think that will hold up the bill,” said Fox, D-Stamford. “I will certainly pay attention to the federal government when something happens.”

Lawlor agrees.

“The feds haven’t done anything yet. We’re just trying to get a sense of what these letters mean,” he said. “There are definitely mixed messages coming from Washington on this.”

The U.S. Attorney General’s office in Oct 2009 issued a memorandum announcing the U.S. DOJ would not pursue prosecutions against cultivators, distributors, and patients as long as they adhere to state laws. But federal officials recently raided several dispensaries in Montana and Washington.

State officials say they have not received any communications on the issue from Connecticut’s U.S. attorney’s office. A spokesman said the office would not comment on whether it plans to pursue legal action if Connecticut lawmakers move forward with the bill.

But Rep. John Hetherington, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the law is there for a reason and it is up to state legislators to abide by it.

“We can’t just disregard and ignore the laws we don’t like,” he said. “I’m all for making this available to people who may healthily benefit, but not when it’s illegal… Are we really going to start the practice of disobeying laws?”

Members of the Public Health Committee decided Tuesday to move the proposal out of committee, but some said they are reserving judgment whether they will be able to vote for final approval with legal uncertainty hanging over it.

“There are some concerns,” said Rep. Elizabeth B. Ritter, co-chairwoman of the Public Health Committee. “This is probably not the first time we’ve run afoul of the federal government on something.”

The proposal now heads to the State Senate.