Rhode Island's medical marijuana community took another hit this week — only this time it didn't result in any healing. Governor Lincoln Chafee announced he was placing a hold on the permits of three compassion centers set to open later this year after he received a letter from US Attorney Peter Neronha warning the dispensaries could be in violation of federal law.
In what Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition executive director JoAnne Lepannen called "an eleventh hour attack" by the Department of Justice, Neronha threatened virtually everyone associated with the pot shops (property owners, landlords, financiers), spelling out the numerous federal laws they might break.
The gist: If you're a 60-year-old granny that likes to toke up before your morning walk, you're going to be fine. But if you stand to collect any cash from the dispensaries, you're going to be treated the same as any back alley dealer.
Neronha's letter was similar to those sent to governors and state legislators in California, Colorado, Montana, and Washington in recent weeks — indicating a clear shift in priorities from 2009 when the Obama Administration suggested the days of raids on compassion centers were over.
At the time, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would be focusing solely on traffickers hiding behind medical marijuana laws. The statement, which was in line with the president's campaign pledge to rein in the Department of Justice, was widely interpreted as a green light for caregivers and dispensaries complying with state law.
Advocates say the president has broken his word. In April, the pot advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) gave Obama an "F" on his medical cannabis report card.
The report blasted the president for failing to address medical marijuana as a public health issue and labeled him "responsible for new intimidation strategies and more than 100 aggressive criminal enforcement raids in medical cannabis states since taking office."
In Rhode Island, Lepannen said the Department of Justice threat has already had a chilling effect on the community. She said she's been fielding phone calls from caregivers and patients asking if they should flush their stash.
For now, Governor Chafee wants to take a wait-and-see approach. He says he plans to consult with governors in states with similar programs, the feds, and the compassion center applicants before moving forward, but he has yet to provide a time frame for doing so. The concern, for medical marijuana advocates, is that pot won't be a priority for Chafee and the matter will be placed on the back burner.
"The Department of Justice is clearly using scare tactics on us," says David Larose, a former Marine who now advocates for the Rhode Island chapter of ASA. "Governor Chafee should stand up with fellow governors and tell the federal government to leave us alone."
If that doesn't work, you can expect to see a lot more medical marijuana rallies on Smith Hill or in front of Neronha's office. In its own warning this week, the ASA issued a "cease-and-desist" letter asking "all persons acting under the authority of the US federal government" to stop interfering with patients and their providers.
Larose said the activist community won't hesitate to stand up and fight for the 3500 medical marijuana patients in the state. He said he believes the Department of Justice doesn't quite understand how much people are suffering.
His message to the government: "You need to do this and you need to do it now. If you don't support us, we will show our disgust in your decision."
Talk about grassroots.