New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican and former U.S. attorney, has never been keen on his state's Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act, which his predecessor, Jon Corzine, signed into law on the last day of his administration. But last week, Christie announced that New Jersey will proceed with plans to let six nonprofit organizations distribute marijuana to patients with "debilitating medical conditions" such as cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis, despite the risk of federal prosecution.
In Arizona, meanwhile, the Medical Marijuana Act approved by voters last November remains on hold thanks to Gov. Jan Brewer, who worries that it conflicts with the federal Controlled Substances Act. Brewer, a Republican who proudly advocates a "new federalism" that "protects the States and (their) citizens against an overreaching federal government," in this case seems happy to let the Obama administration override the will of Arizona's voters.
Although President Obama has repeatedly said he opposes "using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue," several U.S. attorneys warned last spring that compliance with state law offers no protection against federal prosecution for growing or distributing marijuana. That position was confirmed by a June 29 memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Citing this reversal, Brewer has asked a federal judge to decide whether the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, which she opposed before the election, "complies with federal law" or is "pre-empted in whole or in part because of an irreconcilable conflict with federal law." Oddly, Brewer expresses no preference between those two diametrically opposed choices, which reinforces the impression that her suit is a veiled attempt to overturn Arizona's law without antagonizing its supporters.
Brewer claims to be concerned about the legal exposure of state employees who license and regulate dispensaries. But Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, says he has "no intention of targeting or going after people who are implementing ... state law."
In any case, all state regulators would be doing is determining who qualifies for a medical exemption from state drug penalties. As the American Civil Liberties Union notes in a motion to dismiss Brewer's suit, performing that function does not conflict with the Controlled Substances Act or prevent the federal government from enforcing it.