April 7, 2011 in City

Spokane medical marijuana dispensaries on federal notice

Operators, owners could face prosecution
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Medical marijuana dispensaries in Spokane face federal prosecution if they do not end their operations immediately, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday.

Federal authorities hope for voluntary compliance but are prepared “for quick and direct action against the operators of the stores,” according to a statement by Mike Ormsby, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington.

Federal authorities will target both the operators of the stores and the owners of the properties where the stores are located, he said.

“We intend to use the full extent of our legal remedies to enforce the law,” Ormsby said. Depending on the amount of marijuana, some federal crimes carry mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years or more.

More than 40 dispensaries are operating in the Spokane area, Ormsby said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Rice, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said no timeline has been provided but that authorities are prepared.

Similar dispensaries operate in Western Washington, but no enforcement action has been announced there.

Charles Wright, who owns the THC Pharmacy on South Perry Street, said he has no plans to shut down.

“This is the federal government attacking the people they’re supposed to represent,” Wright said. “It makes no sense. This is an established system that the state voters have voted for in 15 states, and the federal government is going to attack us.”

Melissa Lunsford, who owns CBR Medical, which issues medical marijuana authorizations but does not sell marijuana, said her landlord received letters referencing the clinic and a dispensary on property he owns in Spokane Valley.

“We’re not exactly sure how we fall in the category,” Lunsford said. “Dispensaries I can understand because they’re such a gray area.”

A Spokane County jury recently convicted former dispensary owner Scott Q. Shupe of three drug felonies for his work at Change, the first commercial dispensary to face criminal prosecution in the state.

Prosecutors in Spokane County believe the businesses are illegal because they sell marijuana to more than one patient. State law, passed by voters in 1998 and adjusted by the state Legislature in 2008, allows for patients to have up to 15 plants and a pound and a half at a time; caretakers are to provide marijuana to one person “at any one time.” The law says nothing about commercial dispensaries.

“The proliferation of marijuana stores, which are not authorized under state law, suggests that drug traffickers are attempting to avoid application of state law through the use of these stores,” Ormsby said. “Drug traffickers cannot hide behind the law by simply claiming they are medical marijuana stores.”

The federal government classifies marijuana in the same category as heroin. The U.S. attorney’s office said Wednesday that marijuana “has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and has a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”

Spokane lawyer Pat Stiley, who defends medical marijuana patients and dispensaries, noted that several people in the United States are authorized by the federal government to consume marijuana for medicinal purposes.

He called the belief that marijuana holds no medicinal value “a crock of baloney.”

“This proves to me that my federal government doesn’t know what the hell is going on,” he said. “It’s hard for me to imagine anybody who doesn’t think that medical marijuana helps glaucoma patients in a way that no other medication has ever been able to do.”

Stiley said federal authorities appear to be “jumping the gun” in the wake of a new law regulating dispensaries that’s expected to pass the state House. Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she’ll sign the law.

“What a waste of energy in the very week that we think Washington law is going to change totally,” Stiley said.

Guidelines sent to U.S. attorneys by the U.S. Department of Justice in October 2009 said prosecuting seriously ill medical marijuana patients “is unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources” but noted that marijuana distribution in the United States is the top revenue source for violent Mexican drug cartels.

“Prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority of the Department,” the memo said.

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