[author: Josh Crank]
U.S. Attorney John Walsh issued letters this month to 10 medical marijuana centers throughout Colorado, ordering them to shut down or move because they are located within 1,000 feet of schools.
The mailing marks the third round of threatening letters sent to Colorado medical marijuana centers this year; 23 letters were sent out in January, and another 25 were mailed in March. All of the businesses targeted in those mailings closed or relocated voluntarily.
A fourth round of letters is scheduled to go out before the end of the year, according to Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado.
“We’re even hearing anecdotally there are other stores that have closed without receiving a letter, simply out of fear of receiving a letter,” Dorschner said.
The crackdown continues despite U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s assurance to Colorado Rep. Jared Polis that medical marijuana center owners who followed state laws would not be subject to federal law enforcement priorities.
Although the attorney general provides some oversight, the U.S. attorneys have broad prosecutorial discretion and control over federal resources. In justifying the current campaign against Colorado dispensaries, Walsh cites a section of the Controlled Substances Act that creates a 1,000 foot “drug free zone” around schools.
Colorado’s Amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana in the state, does not address the proximity of medical marijuana centers to schools. House Bill 1284, which passed in 2010, does prohibit new medical marijuana center licenses from being issued to locations within 1,000 feet of schools, although local authorities can grant variances overriding this restriction.
‘Substantial Spike in Marijuana Abuse’
After the second round of letters, Boulder, Colo., District Attorney Stan Garnett wrote to Walsh to argue that Colorado’s regulatory framework for medical marijuana was working and the federal government’s efforts are better spent fighting terrorism, organized crime and trafficking of harsher drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Walsh replied, insisting the crackdown was necessary to protect children from drug abuse.
“In the second half of 2010 and in 2011, Colorado saw an explosion in the number of marijuana dispensaries, with dozens opening close to schools,” Walsh wrote. “This office has reviewed information from many sources, including our public schools, as well as hospitals and medical professionals, that shows an alarming and substantial spike in marijuana abuse by children and young people during that same period.”
“When you remove these sources of marijuana, you reduce the chances it could fall into the hands of nearby schoolchildren,” Dorschner said. “Children could go through the dumpster and find discarded marijuana.”
“When students see these businesses closed, they get the message that marijuana may not necessarily be okay,” he added.
Although Walsh’s campaign is focused on medical marijuana centers near schools, his response to Garnett also warns that “this program is only of part of this office’s overall enforcement effort, and does not create by implication a safe harbor for marijuana dispensaries or marijuana cultivation in other locations.”
Easier Said Than Done
Leonard I. Frieling, director of Colorado NORML, the Boulder chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said it was absurd for the U.S. attorney to suggest to medical marijuana business owners that they could simply relocate.
Leonard I. Frieling
“In some cases, you’re talking about kids who have borrowed from their parents’ retirement, putting up every cent they have to start a medical marijuana center, bending over backward to find willing landlords and to consult lawyers, and then they’re told, ‘Oh, you can just move,’” Frieling said. “‘Well, great, give me another $250,000 and I’ll be happy to move.’”
Frieling said that the clashes over marijuana between the federal government and the states will continue until marijuana is removed from the list of Schedule I Controlled Substances.
“Marijuana is still Schedule I. Methamphetamine is only Schedule II. That’s twisted.”
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