Bowing to pressure from Washington, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) announced last Thursday that he will not allow the state to move forward with a plan to open three long-delayed medical marijuana dispensaries. That leaves thousands of Rhode Island patients to their own devices when it comes to procuring their medicine.
The announcement came two days after the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition announced its plans to sue the governor and force him to lift his hold on the compassion centers.
Rhode Island became a medical marijuana state in 2006, when the legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto to pass the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act. But that law did not allow for dispensaries, and in 2009, the legislature passed a law authorizing the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana through three state-registered and -regulated dispensaries.
Despite growing pressure from patients and doctors, movement toward actually implementing the dispensary system was achingly slow. After two years of reviews and public hearings, the state announced in March that it had selected three dispensaries to serve Rhode Island's nearly 4,000 registered patients. But the next month, US Attorney Peter Neronha sent Chafee a letter warning that people involved in large-scale drug production operations could face civil and criminal prosecution, prompting Chafee to block the issuing of licenses pending clarification from Neronha and the US Department of Justice.
Now, Chafee has decided that the federal threats are valid.
"Unfortunately, Rhode Island's compassion center law is illegal under paramount federal law," he said in the statement. "And, while the United States Attorney in each district is given some discretion in the local enforcement of federal laws, I have received communications from both the United States Department of Justice and from the United States Attorney for the District of Rhode Island that large scale commercial operations such as Rhode Island's compassion centers will be potential targets of 'vigorous' criminal and civil enforcement efforts by the federal government. I cannot implement a state marijuana cultivation and distribution system which is illegal under federal law and which will become a target of federal law enforcement efforts. Federal injunctions, seizures, forfeitures, arrests and prosecutions will only hurt the patients and caregivers that our law was designed to protect."
Chafee added that he remains "committed to improving the existing medical marijuana cultivation and distribution system in Rhode Island" and that he hoped the legislature would address flaws in the system in the upcoming session. "I pledge to work with advocates, patients and members of the General Assembly towards that end."
No state or national groups had officially reacted to Chafee's move by the time this story went to press, but in an email announcing the bad news, the Marijuana Policy Project urged supporters to tell Chafee to "reverse course" and let the program go ahead. Federal threats hadn't stopped other states, the group noted.
"It's been over two years since the General Assembly passed legislation creating compassion centers in Rhode Island," MPP wrote. "In that time, Maine, Vermont, Delaware, Arizona, and New Jersey have all enacted laws allowing for regulated dispensing of medical marijuana. All of these states, with the exception of Arizona, are moving forward with giving patients the humane option of safe access, despite the fact that the laws irk officials in DC."