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Maine Victory on Medical Marijuana Use Comes as Feds Decide Not to Use Prosecutions to Frustrate Local Laws

Maine's voters approved a measure by a margin of 59% to 41% to make it the fifth state to allow retail pot dispensaries, expanding its existing ten year-old medical marijuana law.  Maine now joins California, Colorado, New Mexico and Rhode Island which allow for places where medical marijuana patients can legally buy pot. Unlike California's more free-wheeling system, Maine law will require that dispensaries be licensed by the state and more narrowly defines medical conditions for which patients can be prescribed pot.

Federal Government Changes Policy on Prosecutions in States with Medical Marijuana Laws:  Eight additional states allow medical marijuana use without provisions for retail dispensaries, but users in all states with local laws had been threatened by Bush administration actions to threaten prosecutions under federal drug laws even where state law made use legal.  However, in October, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal prosecutors would no longer prosecute people who use marijuana for medical purposes in the 13 states that have a medical marijuana ordinance.  Advocates, like the Marijuana Policy Project, hailed the decision and see opportunities for expanding programs and improving access to safe medical marijuana use even while questions emerged about how local and state governments will take on the role of policing medical marijuana use and distribution, a task that local law enforcement had typically left to federal officials. 

New Movement in the States:  Without the specter of federal intervention, many supporters believe the decision will prompt other states to legalize medical marijuana and shepherd in changes to make medical marijuana more accessible in states where it is already law. 

  • To increase access and ensure a controlled distribution of marijuana, Oregon, in an ironic but practical twist, may grow marijuana at the State Penitentiary.  Opponents will likely harp on the superficial absurdity of this idea, but states would be hard-pressed to find a more secure location for the state to grow and oversee the distribution of marijuana for medical purposes. 
  • Elsewhere, at least 5 states are considering legislation or voter referendums to allow medical marijuana, including New York and New Jersey
  • Supporters in Massachusetts say the federal AG's decision bolsters their drive for a bill currently before the state legislature, an effort also aided by a recent state poll showing 81% of Massachusetts voters support the measure.  
  • Similarly, New Hampshire legislators last week fell two votes shy of overriding a veto of a medical marijuana law, although some legislators expressed concerns about whether the state health department has the funds to administer a medical marijuana law.  The major differences between the legislative and executive branch, however, concerned who would be eligible for the program, which would have established three non-profit "compassion centers" to ensure controlled use and distribution.  The bill's sponsor, Rep. Evalyn Merrick, promised to reintroduce the legislation in 2011.

With the threat of federal enforcement lessened, the U.S. Attorney General's decision will now focus debate more on tensions between state and local enforcement.  As the New York Times reports, local governments in California and Colorado have imposed bans or moratoriums on distributors of marijuana for medical purposes.  Other municipalities in California are considering requirements that distributors act as non-profit organizations, a provision in one of the pieces of model legislation promoted by the Marijuana Policy Project.  

Resources:
Marijuana Policy Project - Model Legislation
Marijuana Policy Project - State by State Medical Marijuana Laws