Az: Pot letter misread, says us attorney

mapinc / 5/27/2011 / By Howard Fischer, Source:Arizona Daily Star

PHOENIX – The top federal prosecutor in Arizona said Gov. Jan Brewer and Attorney General Tom Horne are distorting the facts on the issue of medical marijuana, and the risk of federal prosecution of state workers.

Brewer and Horne announced earlier this week they will file suit, based on concerns about a letter from Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, which they say suggests state employees who process permits under the voter-approved law could be charged with violating the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The pair said their concern is protecting state workers and others involved with medical marijuana, and is not a reflection of their opposition to the initiative.

Brewer said Burke’s letter to Health Director Will Humble earlier this month warned that compliance with Arizona’s new medical marijuana law does not immunize anyone from federal prosecution.

The yet-to-be-filed lawsuit is expected to ask a federal judge to determine what legal protections, if any, Arizona’s voter-approved law provides.

Burke said his letter simply spelled out the priorities his office has in going after those who sell, transport or use marijuana, and never mentioned state workers. The point his letter made is that he would not prioritize going after patients who use medical marijuana under Arizona law, Burke said.

Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson conceded that Burke never mentions state workers, but said just because Burke didn’t say it doesn’t mean state workers have nothing to fear.

Horne likewise responded that Burke’s not specifically mentioning state employees did not mean they are not at that risk.

Burke’s position that compliance with the state medical marijuana law is no protection from federal prosecution, Horne said, leads to the logical conclusion that state employees could be at risk by issuing permits to let people grow, sell or possess marijuana, which could be seen as "facilitating" the distribution of the drug.

Burke said if there was any confusion, Brewer and Horne could have called him or written back for clarification instead of grandstanding at a press conference and filing a lawsuit.

He said a suit asking a judge to rule Arizonans can ignore federal drug laws is a waste. "A federal judge isn’t going to tell a U.S. attorney what he can and can’t enforce," Burke said.

And Burke pointed out that Humble, whose department is charged with implementing the law, was not alarmed by the May 2 letter, or worried about how it would affect his staffers who are processing the permits for those who want to use marijuana as well as those who want to operate dispensaries or even cultivate the drug.

Humble continues to have his employees issue permits for marijuana users.

In a separate development Thursday, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery advised county supervisors to stop doing anything to implement the law until the conflict with federal laws is resolved. The county must approve zoning and use permits for marijuana facilities.

Amelia Cramer, the chief deputy Pima County attorney, said her office has not been asked for an opinion on the law and how it affects county workers.

MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom