U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke's Buzz-Kill on Medical Marijuana: Feds to Act Against "Large" Grow Operations -- But Won't Define "Large"


Federal agents may bust anyone participating in a "large" pot-growing operation, despite Arizona's voter-approved medical marijuana law, says Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke in a letter to the state.

In a recent letter to Will Humble, the director of the state Department of Health Services, Burke reiterates that the feds will look the other way when truly sick people use marijuana -- but that the patients' suppliers might be inviting trouble.

Burke compounds the schizophrenic stance by stating that federal law "may be vigorously enforced against those individuals and entities who operate large marijuana production facilities. Individuals and organizations -- including property owners, landlords and financiers" face legal problems including seizure of their property and other assets.

Problem is, Burke gives no definition of "large."

Robbie Sherwood, Burke's spokesman, didn't know what "large" meant, either, adding that Burke could not be reached because he was on a plane to Washington D.C.   

We e-mailed Burke back in February, asking him for his stance on the issue following our report on an ominous letter to California officials by one of that state's top federal prosecutors, Melinda Haag. Unfortunately, Burke blew us off. But after we saw his letter on the subject on another news site today, Sherwood was kind enough to e-mail us a copy. (See below.)

Though Burke claims in the letter that he's trying to avoid confusion, he really does anything but. Not that it's his fault: Voters knew, or should have known, from the beginning that Arizona's Proposition 203 ran afoul of federal law. Buying, keeping, growing or using marijuana is against federal law, period.

A showdown is coming. It might not be this year, but sooner or later the rights of the 15 states that have medical marijuana laws, including Arizona, must be dealt with in a logical manner. For now, though, the state's weed-minded entrepreneurs have to live with the risk in their quest for the Pot of Gold.

Burke's opinion is hamstrung by the Obama Administration's indecision on the issue. Rather than simply make a decision, Obama's Justice Department chooses to play games with people's lives -- and money. Go ahead, the feds say, invest your hundreds of thousands of dollars in a medical weed-related business. Maybe you'll be a millionaire, or maybe you'll end up serving a few years behind bars. But whether you'll get the prize or prison will be based on a whim. Your operation may be too "large," while someone else's may be just right.

Perhaps the criteria will come down to success: The people running the most efficient, profitable businesses may be first against the wall.

Humble, the DHS director, has publicly stated that he would prefer a few large cultivation facilities that supply several dispensaries rather than having every dispensary growing marijuana. That makes sense from a regulators point of view, because there would be less to regulate. By claiming that "large" grow operations, whatever those are, will be targeted, the feds can't help but indirectly guide the burgeoning industry away from Humble's idea.

In fact, the feds' lack of leadership on the issue may well result in the most unregulated scenario of all: A free-for-all in which most qualifying patients in Arizona can grow their own pot because too few dispenaries are open. State law allows patients to grow up to 12 plants unless they are within 25 miles of a dispensary.

If the feds drive most dispensaries out of business, the state is likely to be full of thousands of small-time growers instead of a few big ones The feds don't have the resources to go after small-time growers and state law enforcement will be legally prohibited from busting medical marijuana patients. Patients, who can legally possess up to 2 1/2 ounces at any time no matter where they got it from, may even turn to black-market weed for their medicine.

In other words, drug cartel kingpins probably can't wait for the feds to target state-approved pot suppliers.

Andrew Myers of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association thinks the federal stance is "asinine," but that it was too early to tell how Burke's letter will affect the industry. The state is set to begin taking applications for dispensaries on June 1. Myers says his office has been taking numerous calls this afternoon from concerned people in the medical marijuana industry.

It makes sense to us that the answer to all of this won't come until 2013. Obama probably won't want to antagonize either side of the issue by making an actual decision before the election.

Burke on Prop203

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.

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