So while the Justice Department insists that Cole is hardly momentous — "the memo is not a change of policy, but rather reinforces the 2009 Ogden memo and recent letters from US Attorney offices," says spokeswoman Jessica A. Smith, in an email to the Phoenix — advocates here and across the country see a betrayal.
But if the recent activity is a reversal, as advocates claim, then why?
The Cole memo suggests the "clarification" was prompted by a recent wave of states considering or enacting "legislation to authorize multiple large-scale, privately-operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers."
And while there may be law enforcement reasons for nipping this growth in kind bud, advocates see another motivation.
"It's unfortunate, but the administration might be playing politics with this issue in advance of the 2012 elections," says Scott Michelman, staff attorney with the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project, a "particularly disappointing" prospect given the president's oft-stated "commitment to science over politics."
There is something perverse, Michelman adds, about the administration firing warning shots at states like Washington and Rhode Island that would use dispensaries to impose greater regulation on the mostly underground world of medical marijuana.
"It's a strange place for the federal government to come out because they're suggesting that they would be happier with less regulation — sort of the Wild West model of medical marijuana," he says.
The west is, indeed, a bit wild when it comes to medical pot. California's explosion of lightly regulated dispensaries, for instance, has emerged as a case study for what can go wrong with a freeform program.
And that is part of the frustration for Rhode Island advocates, who see the state's burgeoning compassion center regime — three non-profit, tightly regulated dispensaries — as a model for a different way forward.
JoAnne Lepannen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, the state's leading medical marijuana advocate, says blocking the compassion centers before they open would mean cutting off a system "accountable to the government."
More importantly, she adds, it would deprive patients of a vital source of marijuana — and force some to keep buying on the black market.
"All we're trying to do," Lepannen says, "is get medicine to sick people."
CALLING THE BLUFF
But is the compassion center model really dead? Does Rhode Island truly need to cave to federal pressure? Maybe not.
Medical marijuana is enormously popular with the public. Sixteen states and Washington, DC have medical pot laws on the books. And eight in 10 respondents to an ABC News/Washington Post poll last year said they support legalizing ganja for medical use.
So while the Obama Administration may have reason to press states to curb medical marijuana's growth, it's not at all clear that Washington would follow through with a major crackdown on those who would ignore the warnings.
Or, at least, not the sort of crackdown that should concern Governor Chafee all that much.
In Washington state, US Attorneys Mike Ormsby and Jenny Durkan made a splash when they opined that state employees involved in the oversight of medical marijuana could be prosecuted.
Governor Gregoire cited that warning when she vetoed parts of Washington's medical marijuana law. And the threat has reverberated in Arizona, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, where governors have raised the specter of federal raids on state offices to explain their caution.