Federal Warnings Hit Medical Pot Boom From California to Arizona, Colorado to Maine, states across the country are legalizing the sale of medicinal marijuana. Recent warnings from U.S. attorneys, however, are making local governments rethink their plans.

Buzz Kill: Federal Warnings Hit Medical Pot Boom

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THIS IS WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

California to Arizona, Colorado to Maine - states across the country have been legalizing the sale of medical marijuana. But recent warnings from U.S. attorneys are making local governments rethink some of their plans.

Megan Hall of member station WRNI, reports on one stalled program in Rhode Island.


MEGAN HALL: Seth Bock stands in what's supposed to be one of Rhode Island's first medical marijuana stores. His group was going to install grow lights and a ventilation system this week, but not anymore.

SETH BOCK: We can't really invest any money into the carpentry and the building process until we know that this program will go on.

HALL: But that could take a while. Rhode Island's Governor Lincoln Chafee has put the program on hold indefinitely. The reason - a letter he received from the U.S. Attorney's office that said Rhode Island's so-called compassion centers could face federal raids, fines, or criminal prosecution if they open.

Michael Trainor is the governor's spokesman.

MICHAEL TRAINOR: The U.S. attorney was, you know, very direct. The governor believes that if we proceed on the present course, he'd be putting the compassion centers and people associated with the compassion centers at great risk.

HALL: Rhode Island's letter is similar to those sent to at least eight other states with medical marijuana programs. Advocates believe the threats are a dramatic change from the Obama administration's original stance on medical marijuana. But the Justice Department refuses to clarify its position, saying only that its policy remains the same. It says the U.S. attorneys assigned to each state had discretion about how to enforce that policy.

What the policy is depends on how you interpret what's called the Ogden memo.

JAY RORTY: In 2009, the Department of Justice indicated that it would be a low priority to prosecute anyone who was complying with state medical marijuana laws.

HALL: Jay Rorty is with the American Civil Liberties Union. He says the 2009 memo from then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden made advocates think the federal government wouldn't interfere with state medical marijuana stores.

RORTY: I think the ACLU takes that statement out of context.

HALL: U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby from Washington State says the memo means the federal government won't go after patients who are growing their own marijuana. But retail stores were never part of that exception.

MICHAEL ORMSBY: We're talking about in some instances thousands of dollars a week being generated by these enterprises.

HALL: It's a problem familiar to Colorado's Attorney General John Suthers. He says Colorado's more than 800 dispensaries are probably not what the federal government had in mind when it issued the Ogden memo. That's why he asked his U.S. attorney for advice.

JOHN SUTHERS: You know we've had a just a plethora of retail dispensaries develop. We've had grow operations. We're now at 125,000 patients. And it's a joke.

HALL: Suthers guesses that the letters from other U.S. Attorneys are an attempt to prevent more states from becoming like Colorado. But how each state interprets those letters is different. Some are going ahead with their programs despite the warnings. Others are in the same limbo as Rhode Island, where patients are getting frustrated.

ELLEN LENOX SMITH: I don't know about you, but I feel mad. Do you?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

HALL: Ellen Lenox Smith is a familiar face at the podium in the Rhode Island State House. She testifies in favor of dispensaries at every opportunity, with her wheelchair and service dog nearby. She says marijuana helps lessen the pain of her two incurable diseases. She grows her own plants - for now.

LENOX SMITH: I have to wonder, as I progress with my two conditions, where am I going to be headed? What happens when I can no longer grow? Where am I supposed to turn?

HALL: For now, the answer to Lenox Smith's question is unclear, as states weigh the new risks of opening dispensaries. Local governments are looking to a lawsuit filed by the governor of Arizona to clarify the federal government's stance on state marijuana programs. Meanwhile, state-supported sales of the drug continues to follow a pattern of fits and starts across the country.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Hall in Providence, Rhode Island.

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