DENVER In Colorado, it’s now legal to use marijuana for some medicinal purposes. Of course, if you do so, you could be arrested.
State law allows Coloradans suffering from glaucoma and other diseases to possess 2 ounces of marijuana or six plants. If federal authorities find them, however, they’ll be destroyed.
Such are the mixed signals being sent in Colorado and eight other states where medical marijuana has been sort of legalized. The reason for the confusion is that while those states have declared marijuana legal under specific medical conditions, the federal government still regards it as a controlled substance, the possession of which is punishable by fines, prison or both.
Since the Supreme Court ruling in May that struck down a California effort to distribute medical marijuana, the nine states have been trying to decide whether their laws are still valid. The consensus is that, yes, states may register patients as authorized medical-marijuana users but, no, they cannot assist them in obtaining the drug.
So states like Colorado are moving forward with laws that allow patients with certain conditions to register with the state as licensed medical-marijuana users. After that, however, the message to patients and doctors is: Partake at your own risk.
“For many people, including my boss, there are so many loopholes that you have to scratch your head and say, ‘Why? What good is this doing?’ It’s almost like a feel-good law,” said Ken Lane, Colorado deputy district attorney.
In Colorado, voters approved a medical-marijuana ballot measure in November that took effect June 1. The day before, a clearly exasperated Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Attorney General Ken Salazar issued a statement saying that they would uphold the medical-marijuana law as “the will of the majority,” but warned that any doctor who recommends it to patients could face federal prosecution.
“On balance, the court’s ruling appears to leave at least some room for Colorado to implement its marijuana program as absurd and wasteful as that result may be,” said the joint statement.
The governor and attorney general also sent letters to the U.S. attorney for Colorado, encouraging the “criminal prosecution of anyone who attempts to use this state program to circumvent federal anti-drug laws,” a move that left medical-marijuana advocates sputtering with outrage.
“Colorado’s governor and attorney general have been trying to scare everyone,” said Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
So far, medical-marijuana laws have been a largely Western phenomenon. California and Arizona approved the nation’s first medical-marijuana laws in 1996, followed by Alaska, Oregon and Washington in 1998. A year later, Maine became the first and only Eastern state to pass such a law. Last year, Colorado and Nevada voters approved medical-marijuana statutes by voter initiative, while Hawaii did the same via the legislature.
Under the Colorado law, which mirrors the Oregon statute, a patient must get a letter from a doctor certifying that he has glaucoma, AIDS or one of the other medical conditions listed under the statute. The patient can then send in an application for a medical-marijuana registration card with a processing fee of $140.
With that card, a patient is permitted under state law to possess 2 ounces of marijuana or six plants, three of which may be flowering. So far, the state Department of Health and the Environment has processed 28 applications for identification cards out of 200 requests for applications, according to state registrar of vital records Carol Garrett.
But Dr. Frank Sargent, a Denver urologist who opposed the initiative, predicts that most physicians will be too leery of the federal consequences to take advantage of the new state law.
“Physicians don’t want to face the potential of losing their licenses,” Dr. Sargent said. “Say one of your patients took marijuana and then got into a car accident. Where would that end up? Doctors are going to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to think twice about getting involved in a possible lawsuit.’”