Opponents solicit federal warning on medical marijuana

Using a warning letter solicited from the U.S. attorney, opponents of medical marijuana are expected to use a potential conflict with federal law in a last-ditch effort to block a legalization bill likely to pass today in the state House of Representatives.

David B. Fein, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, wrote a letter to opponents stating that “growing, distributing, and possessing marijuana” is a violation of federal law “regardless of state laws permitting such activities.”

Opponents say the letter highlights a central problem with medical marijuana, but supporters of the bill said Fein’s letter breaks no new ground, nor does it signal a real threat of prosecution.

“This is familiar language from the Department of Justice. Letters like these have not prevented states, including New Jersey and Rhode Island, from going forward with medical marijuana,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of ACLU-Connecticut.

Fein wrote that the Justice Department does not focus its limited resources on the chronically ill who use marijuana as a palliative recommended by doctors, but it “maintains the authority” to prosecute those who grow and distribute it.

The letter was solicited by two Republican opponents: Sens. Michael McLachlan of Danbury and Toni Boucher of Wilton.

“The United States attorney made it very clear there is a potential challenge” to anyone involved in the medical marijuana trade, McLachlan said. “I plan to raise it in debate.”

Schneider said a potential conflict with federal law did not dissuade New Jersey or Gov. Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney.

“Just look at Gov. Chris Christie, who gave the green light to New Jersey’s medical marijuana program,” he said. “If he didn’t have a concern, I think it’s safe to say the bill we have here in Connecticut is not going to provoke any harshser response.”

New Jersey’s problems so far have revolved around state regulation and implementation, not federal prosecution.

Proponents of medical marijuana have been disappointed in the Obama administration’s stance and letters like the one from Fein, viewing them as a retreat from a more sympathetic view when Obama was a candidate.

But the president said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone he is unwilling to ignore federal law.

“What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana — and the reason is, because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law,” Obama said.

“I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, ‘Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books.’ What I can say is, ‘Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.’ As a consequence, there haven’t been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes,” Obama said.