Colorado Medical-marijuana Bill Draws U.S. Attorney’s Warning
Denver Post: “The U.S. attorney for Colorado warned state lawmakers Tuesday that pending legislation adjusting rules for medical marijuana would conflict with federal law and could lead to federal prosecutions. U.S. Attorney John Walsh’s letter was sent to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers in response to his request for clarification on how federal treatment of medical marijuana use may conflict with pending legislation now under consideration in House Bill 1043.”
The text of the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s letter follows:
April 26, 2011
State of Colorado
1525 Sherman St, 7th Floor
Denver, CO 80203
Dear Attorney General Suthers:
I am writing in response to your request for clarification of the position of the U.S. Department of Justice (the “Department”) with respect to activities that would be licensed or otherwise permitted under the terms of pending House Bill 1043 in the Colorado General Assembly. I have consulted with the Attorney General of the United States and the Deputy Attorney General of the United States about this bill, and write to ensure that there is no confusion as to the Department’s views on such activities.
As the Department has noted on many prior occasions, the Congress of the United States has determined that marijuana is a controlled substance, and has placed marijuana on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Federal law under Title 21 of the United States Code, Section 841, prohibits the manufacture, distribution or possession with intent to distribute any controlled substance, including marijuana, except as provided under the strict control provisions of the CSA. Title 21, Section 856 makes it a federal crime to lease, rent or maintain a place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing or using a controlled substance. Title 21, Section 846 makes it a federal crime to conspire to commit that crime, or any other crime under the CSA. Title 18, Section 2 makes it a federal crime to aid and abet the commission of a federal crime. Moreover, federal anti-money laundering statutes, including Title 18, Section 1956, make illegal certain financial transactions designed to promote illegal activities, including drug trafficking, or to conceal or disguise the source of the proceeds of that illegal activity. Title 18, Section 1957, makes it illegal to engage in a financial transaction involving more than $10,000 in criminal proceeds.
In October 2009, the Department issued guidance (the “Ogden Memo”) to U.S. Attorneys around the country in states with laws authorizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes under state law. At the time the Ogden Memo issued, Colorado law, and specifically, Amendment 20 to the Colorado Constitution, authorized the possession of only very limited amounts of marijuana for medical purposes by individuals with serious illnesses and those who care for them. [footnote 1] As reiterated in the Ogden memo, the prosecution of individuals and organizations involved in the trade of any illegal drugs and the disruption of drug trafficking organizations is a core priority of the Department. This core priority includes prosecution of business enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana. Accordingly, while the Department does not focus its limited resources on seriously ill individuals who use marijuana as part of a medically recommended treatment regimen in compliance with state law as stated in the Ogden Memo, we maintain the authority to enforce the CSA vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law. The Department’s investigative and prosecutorial resources will continue to be directed toward these objectives.
It is well settled that a State cannot authorize violations of federal law. The United States District Court for the District of Colorado recently reaffirmed this fundamental principle of our federal constitutional system in United States v. Bartkowicz, No. 10-cr-00118-PAB (D. Colo.2010), when it held that Colorado state law on medical marijuana does not and cannot alter federal law’s prohibition on the manufacture, distribution or possession of marijuana, or provide a defense to prosecution under federal law for such activities.
The provisions of Colorado House Bill J 043, if enacted, would permit under state law conduct that is contrary to federal law, and would threaten the ability of the United States government to regulate possession, manufacturing and trafficking in controlled substances, including marijuana. First, provisions of a proposed medical marijuana investment fund amendment to H.B. 1043, which ultimately did not pass in the Colorado House but which apparently may be reintroduced as an amendment in the Colorado Senate, appear to contemplate that the State of Colorado would license a marijuana investment fund or funds under which both Colorado and out-of-state investors would invest in commercial marijuana operations. The Department would consider civil and criminal legal remedies regarding those who invest in the production of marijuana, which is in violation of federal law, even if the investment is made in a state-licensed fund of the kind proposed.
Second, the terms of H.B. 1043 would authorize Colorado state licensing of “medical marijuana infused product” facilities with up to 500 marijuana plants, with the possibility of licensing even larger facilities, with no stated number limit, with a state-granted w.river based upon consideration of broad factors such as “business need.” Similarly, the Department would consider civil actions and criminal prosecution regarding those who set up marijuana growing facilities and dispensaries, as well as property owners, as they will be acting in violation of federal law.
As the Attorney General has repeatedly stated, the Department of Justice remains firmly committed to enforcing the federal law and the Controlled Substances Act in all states. Thus, if the provisions of H.B. 1043 are enacted and become law, the Department will continue to carefully consider all appropriate civil and criminal legal remedies to prevent manufacture and distribution of marijuana and other associated violations of federal law, including injunctive actions; civil penalties; criminal prosecution; and the forfeiture of any property used to facilitate a violation of federal law, including the Controlled Substances Act.
I hope this letter provides the clarification you have requested, and assists the State of Colorado and its potential licensees in making informed decisions regarding the cultivation, manufacture, and distribution of marijuana, as well as related financial transactions.
JOHN F. WALSH
United States Attorney
District of Colorado
[footnote 1] As passed by Colorado voters in 2000, Amendment 20 made lawful under Colorado law the possession by a patient or caregiver of patient of “[n]o more than two ounces of a useable form of marijuana or no more than six marijuana plants with three or fewer being mature, flowering plants producing a usable form of marijuana.” Colo. Const. art. XVIII, § 14(4)(a). Within these limits, the Amendment authorized a medical marijuana “affirmative defense” to state criminal prosecution for possession of marijuana. Colo. Const. art. XVIII, § 14(2)(a), (b).