The federal government will vigorously prosecute anyone involved in unlawfully manufacturing, distributing and marketing marijuana, U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke said in a letter to the state health department.
The letter came in response to numerous inquiries and to ensure there was no confusion about the U.S. Department of Justice view of the state’s plan to regulate marijuana for medical use, Burke said.
“This compliance with Arizona laws and regulations does not provide a safe harbor nor immunity from federal prosecution,” Burke wrote.
The letter was sent to Arizona Department of Health Services Director Will Humble.
The Justice Department has consistently advised that Congress determined marijuana is a controlled substance, and that possessing, growing or distributing marijuana in any capacity other than federal authorized research is a violation of federal law.
Burke wrote that the Justice Department has told its prosecutors not to focus resources on people who use marijuana under the auspices of a state program.
In practical terms, Humble said the letter was a warming to large-scale operators.
“I think it’s a pretty clear shot across the bow for applicants who intend to have large-scale cultivation facilities or a big dispensary,” Humble said.
Voters passed the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act in November, and empowered the health department to license users and dispensaries. The state started accepting applications for medical marijuana user cards last month and will begin taking dispensary applications on June 1.
“I believe the federal government ought to enforce their laws,” Gov. Jan Brewer said. “I have been calling on them to do that with regards to illegal immigration, and they have refused, so I guess that they pick and choose which ones they want to enforce.”
Brewer has been battling the federal government over its efforts to prevent the state’s law cracking down on illegal immigrants from being enforced.
She also said the voters of Arizona approved the medical marijuana law, and she assumes it will be implemented as planned.
Humble said the first dispensary licenses should be issued in early August.
“I think the biggest impact the letter could have would be to cut down on the number of dispensary applications that we get, especially for people who have a lot to lose and people that were planning to have a business model that included large-scale cultivation or a large dispensary,” he said. “Because it makes it clear that even if they were in total compliance with our rules … they could go to the pokey. “
The letter also said federal officials could bring forfeiture actions against dispensaries and their owners.
“It’s not just losing your freedom, it’s losing your stuff, too,” Humble said.