But advocates say the issue is a red herring. Arizona US Attorney Dennis Burke, for one, has said he has "no intention to investigate, target or prosecute state employees." And it is hard to imagine Neronha, the Rhode Island US Attorney, hauling the director of the state health department into court.
If putting state employees at risk is a negligible concern, advocates say, the governor should allow the would-be proprietors of compassion centers to open their doors — and face the risk of federal prosecution themselves.
Indeed, a failure to do so, they argue, would be a betrayal of Chafee's constituency. "He was not elected by the US Attorneys," says Lepannen. "He was elected by the people of Rhode Island."
Chafee and his chief legal counsel, Claire Richards, were out of the office this week and unavailable for comment. But his office issued a statement saying the administration is "conducting a comprehensive review of this matter." Deputy press secretary Christian Vareika added, in an email, that there is no firm timetable for a decision on how to proceed.
Of course, even without a serious threat to state employees, Chafee may blanche at the prospect of a federal crackdown on a state-sanctioned program. But advocates say they are hopeful the governor will give them the green light.
He recently showed a willingness to stand up to Washington, they note, when he refused to surrender to federal authorities murder suspect Jason Wayne Pleau, citing concerns about the death penalty.
And other states seem to be moving forward with their medical marijuana programs even in the face of the Justice Department's get-tough rhetoric. In Maine, for instance, the fourth of eight authorized dispensaries just began offering patients marijuana in Biddeford.
Vermont, which just passed a new medical marijuana law, seems relatively unperturbed, too.
TAKING THE RISK
Of course, the potential for prosecution weighs a bit more heavily if you're personally at risk.
And the would-be proprietors of the three Rhode Island compassion centers poised to serve Rhode Island's growing population of 3700 registered medical marijuana patients will have some difficult decisions to make if Chafee gives them the go-ahead.
But at least some of those folks seem game to proceed.
The would-be managers of the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence suggest, in a statement, that they see hope even in a strongly worded Cole memo, which targets "commercial cultivation, sale, distribution and use of marijuana" but does not explicitly call out "non-profit, state-regulated models for distribution, like the current law in Rhode Island.
"We continue to encourage Governor Chafee to lift his hold on the issuance of compassion center registration certificates," the statement continues. "If he does, we intend to operate a non-profit, patient-centered facility in accordance with state law. The patient community deserves no less."
Seth Bock, the acupuncturist behind the proposed Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth, says he is committed to medical marijuana in the long run and plans to "hang in there" while the situation unfolds.
He suggested he would consider scaling down his proposed operation — perhaps below the 100-plant threshold that triggers a five-year mandatory minimum sentence under federal law — in the short term.
But questions of scale are, perhaps, most appropriate for the third of the state-approved dispensaries, the Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick, which is projecting 8000 patients and $25 million in revenue by 2013.