Chris Walsh: Take a Deep Breath – Clarification on Medical Marijuana Laws Coming Soon

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What was that loud sucking sound you just heard? The collective inhale (of air and, in many cases, smoke) of the medical marijuana industry after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed yesterday to clarify the federal government’s stance on pot laws passed by individual states. The exhale has yet to come, as everyone – from dispensary owners to patients – holds their breath until the government speaks on the issue.

It’s going to be a long couple weeks – or months – for people whose livelihoods are tied to the medical marijuana industry.

This could easily go one of two ways, resulting in two very different outcomes. The government could come out swinging, emphasizing that states are in direct violation of federal law and saying that it will – not could – prosecute companies providing medical marijuana and even state employees involved in licensing patients and centers. Or it could come out with a more conciliatory tone, saying that it will only go after businesses that violate state laws (which, by the way, it has indicated before).

The federal government has flip-flopped on this issue several times, as you all most certainly know. So it’s easy to be skeptical of whatever Holder says next on this issue.

But I think this time will be different (I know, that’s what they all say). Here’s my reasoning: The industry has reached critical mass, and it desperately needs clarification going forward. Nearly one-third of the country’s states have approved medical marijuana in some fashion, and there’s an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million registered patients. With chaos breaking out in Arizona (as we wrote about in this previous post), Washington and other states because of concerns over the possibility of federal prosecution, the situation has reached a boiling point.

I think the federal government realizes that some guidance is needed. Let’s just hope it’s firm guidance, not vague notes sent by government lawyers or veiled threats to prosecute state employees.

So what can we expect? I imagine the government will look to find some kind of middle ground rather than completely crack down on individual states. I’m encouraged by this piece yesterday in the (Rhode Island) Providence Journal, which indicates a compromise is on the horizon. But the government has been unpredictable on this issue, so nothing should surprise you at this point.