June 11, 2001
By Matt Joyce
Herald Staff Writer
Durango residents who obtain the right under state law to use marijuana for medical reasons will likely be safe from federal prosecution in their hometown.
Area law enforcement officials say their first responsibility is to state law, meaning that, for practical purposes, the state’s new constitutional amendment allowing the use of marijuana to relieve the pain of certain debilitating diseases takes precedence over federal law prohibiting marijuana possession or use.
Medical marijuana use was approved by Colorado voters in November when they passed Amendment 20 to the state constitution. Lawmakers implemented the amendment in April.
The law allows residents with diseases including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS and multiple sclerosis to register with the state health department and carry a license permitting them to have up to 2 ounces of marijuana or six plants, three of them mature.
Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar said last week that a May ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, including an opinion that rejected any medical necessity for marijuana use, does not invalidate Colorado’s law.
Carol Garrett, registrar of vital records for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said on Tuesday that eight medical marijuana registry identification cards had been issued since they were made available June 1. She did know if any cards were issued in the Durango area, but that in any case, such information was confidential.
District Attorney Sarah Law said she has not been contacted by Salazar’s office concerning medical marijuana use. Nor has she been contacted by citizens or doctors with questions about the new law.
"I can’t prosecute somebody for something they’re legally able to do," Law said.
The Durango Police Department will continue to be guided by state law, Chief Al Bell said.
Regardless of the conflicting state and federal laws, most of the Police Department’s marijuana arrests are handled through state court, not federal court, he said.
Minor possession – like the 2 ounces or six plants permitted by the medical marijuana law – are not reported to the U.S. attorney to be prosecuted in federal court, Bell said.
Bell said he hopes it will be easy for police to verify medical marijuana cards.
"What we would hope is that there’s going to be some kind of registry where those cards can be verified … and then we’d verify some other identification," Bell said. "All those being even, there wouldn’t be an arrest."
Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Denver, said the U.S. attorney general’s office has not contacted the Denver office regarding the state’s new law.
"The short answer is that nothing has changed from the federal government’s perspective," Dorschner said.
The U.S. attorney’s office will continue to investigate the cases presented to it and prosecute when warranted, he said.
State certification aside, there is still no legal way of obtaining the weed. The state health department will not supply marijuana, and although a doctor’s recommendation is required to obtain a medical marijuana card, doctors have no special authority to possess marijuana or supply it to their patients.
Dorschner would not speculate on whether the U.S. attorney’s office would prosecute Colorado doctors who supply marijuana to their patients.
"If a case comes
through the door, we’ll handle that when it happens," he said.
Contents copyright © 2001, the Durango Herald.