By Karen Auge
Denver Post Medical Writer
Friday, June 01, 2001 - Colorado doctors who recommend medical marijuana for their patients could risk federal prosecution, Attorney General Ken Salazar warned Thursday.
However, after more than two weeks of review, Salazar said that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling does not invalidate Colorado's medical marijuana law.
"The ruling does not prevent the state from moving forward" to implement the amendment allowing use of medical marijuana, Salazar wrote in a prepared statement.
Amendment 20, which voters approved in November, is set to take effect today. The new state law does not establish any legal means to obtain marijuana.
Salazar, along with Gov. Bill Owens, opposed the amendment.
The amendment allows patients who suffer from certain debilitatpetition the state for permission to possess and use small amounts of the drug.
For that permission to be granted, a physician must sign a form verifying an applicant suffers from one of several specific medical conditions and that "marijuana may mitigate the symptoms of the patient's condition."
Salazar's statement said he and Owens wrote Dr. Richard Allen, president of the Colorado Medical Society, warning that "physicians face the risk of potential federal prosecution if they participate in the program."
Allen said Thursday that he had not yet received the letter.
But, he said, "it sounds like there are some issues here that physicians need to be concerned about. And nobody has any answers yet."
Rich Caschette, a former federal prosecutor in Denver, said federal law prohibiting sale and use of marijuana should cause concern.
"I certainly would be wary if I were a physician," he said.
Luther Symonds, spokesman for Coloradans for Medical Rights, which backed Amendment 20, said he was disappointed that Salazar included what Symonds termed a threat in his statement.
"He is attempting to scare and frighten Colorado doctors. It's unfortunate that they're resorting to fear tactics."
But Symonds said he didn't think the warning would effectively derail Amendment 20. "I think once everyone steps back and sees that federal courts were really quick and really decisive in California, it's going to give doctors here a level of comfort that these threats won't be carried out," Symonds said.
Last September, a federal district judge in California ruled that federal efforts to bar physicians from discussing medical marijuana with patients violated the doctors' First Amendment right to free speech.
Alan Gilbert, Colorado's solicitor general, said courts could interpret a doctor's signature on the application as merely offering an opinion and therefore not a violation of drug laws.
Salazar's opinion on Amendment 20 comes in the wake of a May 14 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said cannabis buyers clubs, which provide medical marijuana for people in California, are illegal. In its ruling, the court said there is no scientific basis for the medical use of marijuana. But while it outlawed the buyers' clubs, the high court did not specifically overturn California's Proposition 215, the 1996 law that legalized the use of medical marijuana in that state.
The ruling prompted questions about whether Colorado's Amendment 20 would be pre-empted by federal laws barring marijuana use.
In his statement Thursday, Salazar said he and Owens had sent a letter to acting U.S. Attorney Richard Spriggs asking him to "enforce federal law."
A spokesman for Spriggs said the office hadn't yet received the letter Thursday afternoon.