A high-ranking U.S. Justice Department official who wrote a memo saying state medical marijuana laws do not provide immunity from federal prosecution refused to say Wednesday whether a recent crackdown in California signals a shift in federal policy that may result in a crackdown in other states.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the memo sent to U.S. attorneys in June speaks for itself, and he said U.S. attorneys have discretion in how federal law is enforced in their districts.
"I think it says what needs to be said," Cole said of his memo and the stated federal law enforcement policy on medical marijuana. His comments followed a news conference at Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh's office about another matter.
Cole's memo reinforced a memo sent in 2009 by his predecessor, David Ogden, that prosecutors should not focus investigative resources on patients and caregivers complying with state medical marijuana laws. But Cole noted that since the 2009 memo, several states considered or enacted laws authorizing multiple large-scale, privately operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers, in violation of federal drug law.
There are 723 dispensaries, 1,106 cultivation sites and 288 infused-product manufacturers operating under Colorado law, according to figures from the Colorado Department of Revenue. Cole's memo, in addition to warnings sent to dozens of marijuana operations across California to shut down or face prosecution, raised fears that a crackdown was coming to other states.
"The majority of people are concerned that the feds are going to come down on us here in Colorado. Based on what happened in California, it didn't help any," said Danyel Joffe, a lawyer who provides legal advice to medical marijuana businesses.
Sixteen states have passed laws legalizing marijuana for medical use, beginning with California in 1996.
Walsh said he has discretion, but he declined to elaborate. Jeff Dorschner, his spokesman, referred to a legal opinion that Walsh wrote before Cole's memo. The opinion sent to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said a state cannot authorize violations of federal law.
As for prosecutions, Dorschner said large-scale marijuana prosecutions are examined on a case-by-case basis that can include other levels of enforcement besides criminal charges, including asset forfeiture and seizure of contraband.
"There is a substantial weight of discretion from one district to another," Dorschner said.