About-Face on Delaware Medical Marijuana Law a Troubling Sign for Other States With Cannabis Legislation

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Some storm clouds have gathered over the fledgling medical marijuana industry in Delaware this week, where the state’s governor unexpectedly decided to put the whole cannabis program on ice just as it was about to begin.

Less than nine months after signing the Delaware Medical Marijuana Act, Gov. Jack Markell – a Democrat – backtracked and announced that he will suspend the program indefinitely, saying he fears that the federal government will prosecute patients, businesses and, particularly, state employees.

The law calls for the creation of a medical cannabis infrastructure that lets patients with certain medical conditions register with the state and buy marijuana from licensed nonprofit dispensaries. The licensing process was slated to begin this year, and MMJ players were getting their ducks in order to help launch the industry.

In justifying his decision, Markell said he changed his mind about the MMJ program after receiving a warning letter from the U.S. Justice Department indicating that the federal government could prosecute those involved in establishing, licensing, using and running marijuana-focused operations.

The letter, penned by US Attorney Charles M. Oberly III, said that growing, distributing or possessing marijuana is a “violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities.” It goes on to say that “those who engage in financial transactions involving the proceeds of such activities may also be in violation of federal money laundering statutes.”

The most troublesome part of the letter involves state employees, who apparently are not immune to prosecution even if they’re following the state medical marijuana act.

The situation playing out in Delaware is extremely worrisome for the entire medical marijuana community, as it could stoke fears in other states considering MMJ laws or about to launch their programs. This particular letter is the strongest indication yet that the federal government could hold state and city employees responsible for licensing and regulating medical marijuana dispensaries. Until now, the Obama administration hasn’t threatened to go after state employees working on medical marijuana issues.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer delayed the adoption of the medical cannabis program there for the same reasons, though the federal government hadn’t indicated that state employees were at risk. A judge overseeing a lawsuit on the issue recently ruled that the state did not prove there was a risk to Arizona government workers who helped implement the MMJ law. Now, the state is ready to move forward with its plans.

However, the letter sent to Delaware’s governor could force Arizona Gov. Brewer to reconsider once again, and there’s a possibility she might put the brakes on the dispensary licensing process for a second time.

In Delaware, there’s a little hope on the horizon. One lawmaker is proposing that the state compromise in order to craft MMJ regulations that work for both sides, possibly by nixing the dispensary model and instead allowing patients to grow a limited amount of medical marijuana at home.