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NJ medical marijuana activists urge Governor to implement long-delayed state program

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July 11, 2011

New Jersey

By David Godow

TRENTON, New Jersey:

The prognosis for New Jersey's medical marijuana program, on hold since January 2010, may finally be looking up following U.S. Justice Department assurances that state medical pot programs will not be targeted for legal action. On June 30, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole sent a letter to every state attorney general clarifying the government's position.

Cole noted that "it is likely not an efficient use of federal resources to focus enforcement efforts on individuals ... serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen."[1] However, he implied that the "large-scale, privately operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers," that have sprung up as a result of state medical marijuana laws could still be subject to prosecution.[1] Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey argued that nothing in Cole's letter would put New Jersey's program at risk, since no large-scale, commercial cultivation is planned. She strongly urged the governor to allow medical cannabis in New Jersey to proceed.

Governor Chris Christie has kept the program on ice for 18 months based on fears that employees of state marijuana dispensaries could be arrested and prosecuted for violating federal law by distributing a controlled substance. Indeed, despite promises by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to not pursue medical marijuana programs sanctioned by state law, U.S. attorneys in California, Colorado, Montana and other states that permit medical marijuana have threatened to shut down "unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law."[2] These mixed messages have had a chilling effect on the expansion of medical marijuana in other states; in April 2011, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire vetoed a bill clarifying the state's medical marijuana law on the grounds that it could open state employees to federal prosecution.

Pressure on Christie to push the program forward in the wake of Cole's letter has already begun. The Newark Star-Ledger released a blistering editorial on July 10, 2011, accusing the governor of "foot-dragging" in implementing the state's law.[3] Whether the state's dispensaries will, as advocates hope, escape the attention of federal law enforcement is still an open question.

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