HARTFORD, CT — While many believe states that have legalized recreational marijuana are being targeted by the Trump administration, what isn’t clear is whether states with medical pot programs, such as Connecticut, are also on the president’s radar screen.
Last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, an Obama-era policy that took a hands-off approach to marijuana in states where it was legal. Instead, federal prosecutors, Sessions wrote, should decide for themselves whether to crack down on marijuana businesses.
This likely spells trouble for recreational marijuana, which is now legal in eight states and the District of Columbia. The move prompted an outcry from legalization advocates. “Enforcement is up to individual U.S. Attorneys, but this is a clear directive from their boss to start going after legitimate, tax paying businesses,” Morgan Fox, the communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in an email.
What’s not as clear is how this might affect medical marijuana, long considered the more acceptable cousin to recreational weed.
A provision called the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment protects medical-marijuana programs in states from federal interference. But that provision expires Jan. 19, unless the new federal spending bill renews it. It’s not clear whether it will be included in however Congress decides to fund the government next.
Justice officials told The Associated Press that they “would follow the law, but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana-related prosecutions.”
If the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment goes away, federal agents could start raiding and shutting down medical-marijuana dispensaries with renewed vigor.
Sessions’ decision to rescind the Cole memo cannot be used to interfere in medical marijuana programs while the Rohrabacher Amendment is in place, according to Becky Dansky, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project.
“Of course Thursday’s announcement reaffirms the importance of amending existing federal law to permanently protect states’ rights to enact and implement marijuana policy,” Dansky said. “It also highlights why it is critical Congress maintain the Rohrabacher amendment in any future versions of the budget.”
As of Dec. 31, there were 22,411 registered medical marijuana patients in Connecticut, with most in Hartford, New Haven, and Fairfield counties, according to the department’s website. A total of 807 doctors and advanced practice registered nurses had registered to certify patients to buy cannabis products.
“Here at Department of Consumer Protection we are going to continue to follow Connecticut law which allows for a Medical Marijuana Program,” DCP spokesperson Lora Rae Anderson said.
“If the Justice Department chose to use enforcement resources to fight this program, they would be aiming to dismantle an incredibly secure health care program that supports over 22,000 Connecticut residents with severe debilitating conditions,” Anderson said.
She said Connecticut’s program “is the first in the nation based on a medical model that does not break the relationship between the patient, physician, and pharmacist. We will continue to sustain, and grow this program with the same commitment to good health care as we always have.”
Connecticut’s program is growing so fast that the state last week issued a Request for Application for three more sites to meet the need for the growing medical marijuana program. The deadline to apply is April 9.
“Our state’s Medical Marijuana Program is incredibly successful, and is growing rapidly,” said Consumer Protection Commissioner Michelle H. Seagull in a statement about seeking new applications.
The nine existing dispensaries are located in Milford, with two, and one each in Branford, Hartford, Waterbury, Bethel, South Windsor, Montville, and Bristol. There are four state-approved growers as well.
There are 22 conditions for which patients 18 and over can purchase medical marijuana, including cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, epilepsy, sickle cell disease and psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. There is also six different conditions for those 18 and younger for which medical marijuana can be prescribed.
Sixty percent of states have a medical marijuana program, so the pressure might be on Congress to renew the amendment.
Chris Mattei, a candidate for Connecticut Attorney General, said he wouldn’t allow the medical marijuana program to be dismantled in the state.
“I call on Congress to immediately renew the Rohrabacher Amendment. As Attorney General, I will take swift and appropriate legal action against the Trump Administration to protect Connecticut’s patients, health programs, and the organizations that serve them,” Mattei said.
Efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in Connecticut haven’t been successful even though two-thirds of Connecticut voters, or 63 percent, support making possession of small amounts of cannabis legal for adults, according to a March 2015 Quinnipiac University poll.
Connecticut’s Office of Fiscal Analysis has determined that the Nutmeg state could bring in from $45.4 million to $104.6 million a year if the legislature legalizes marijuana in the same way it’s been done in Massachusetts or Colorado.
The June 28, 2017, Democratic budget proposal said it would bring in $60 million in 2018 and $100 million in 2019.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has repeatedly stated that legalizing recreational use “isn’t a priority” for him, though he has added he would follow developments if and when a bill legalizing recreational pot makes it through the House and Senate.