TRENTON — New Jersey’s medical marijuana program is not likely to run afoul of federal law if its operation is kept small and controlled and doesn’t allow growers to create “industrial marijuana cultivation centers,’’ according to an eagerly-awaited letter from the Obama administration.
The letter from the U.S. Justice Department, obtained by The Star-Ledger last night, comes more than two months after state Attorney General Paula Dow asked the Obama administration whether New Jersey’s medical marijuana program would violate federal law and whether those licensed to sell or grow marijuana and the state workers who will administer the program would face arrest.
Gov. Chris Christie has said he will not implement the program until the federal government assured him there would be no arrests or prosecutions.
The Obama administration said in a 2009 memo that going after medical marijuana users and their caregivers would not be a priority for federal law enforcement. Cole’s letter says that remains true.
But the letter also says the administration is concerned about the increase of large-scale growers and sellers.
“There has been an increase in the scope of commercial cultivation, sale, distribution, and use of marijuana for purported medical purposes,” the letter states. “For example, within the past 12 months, several jurisdictions have considered or enacted legislation to authorize multiple, large-scale, privately operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers. Some of these planned facilities have revenue projections of millions of dollars based on the planned cultivation of tens of thousands of cannabis plants.”
Possession and distribution of marijuana is a federal crime, even though 16 states have passed laws making it available, for medical purposes, to select patients.
In a letter addressed to every state attorney general, Deputy U.S. Attorney James Cole did not specifically address the implications for state employees assigned to administer medical marijuana programs.
Dow’s spokesman, Paul Loriquet, declined to say whether the letter answered all the Attorney General’s questions. “We are reviewing the letter and memo and will advise our clients accordingly,’’ he said.
Roseanne Scotti of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey said her reading of the letter suggests New Jersey workers and the program itself are safe.
“This is laying out explicitly who is at risk,’’ Scotti said. “If you are planning on growing tens of thousands of plants and making millions of dollars, you are going to be under the purview of federal law enforcement. That is not what is planned for New Jersey.
“I would implore Governor Christie — beg Governor Christie — to move forward with this program with all possible speed. The people we represent are on the phone to us crying. They do not have a hang nail. They have diseases like ALS, which is the worst disease in the world,” Scotti said.
There are six approved alternative treatment centers operators in New Jersey — the nonprofit companies that will grow and sell the drug — that are preparing to launch their operations sometime this summer or fall.