Medical Marijuana In Mass. Poses Federal Challenge

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As the Massachusetts Department of Public Health works on regulations about medical marijuana use in the state, one of the key questions is about the legality, on the federal level, of using marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Under federal law, marijuana is an illegal substance. The FBI and DEA have raided medical marijuana operations that were licensed to operate in other states.

In Montana, Chris Williams is facing more than 80 years in prison, under mandatory federal sentencing guidelines, for charges in connection with Montana Cannabis, a company that was licensed in Montana to grow marijuana for medicinal use.

In the film, "The Code of the West," Williams was shocked when his company was raided.

"We've operated clearly within state law," he said at the time. "So have all the other caregivers that they're raiding all across the state today. They have no excuse. There was no clear reasoning behind what they're doing other than, 'Do you know this is illegal federally?' "

U.S. Department of Justice officials have not given clear guidance on the issue. In Massachusetts, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has not commented since the ballot question legalizing medical marijuana in the state passed.

Before the election, she issued the following statement:

While this office does not intend to focus its limited resources on seriously ill individuals who use marijuana as part of a medically recommended treatment program in compliance with state law, individuals and organizations who are in the business of cultivating, selling, or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, will be in violation of federal law and be subject to federal enforcement.

Emmy-nominated filmmaker and Harvard University Law School lecturer Rebecca Richman Cohen said there are a lot of questions about medical marijuana and regulations that states could enact to help mitigate the discrepancy between federal and state laws.

"I think the state needs to move quickly and decisively, but they also can't rush the process of enacting a law before it's thoroughly thought through," Richman Cohen said. However, she added that tighter regulations can be problematic, restricting patient access to cannabis.

To be sure, Richman Cohen said the federal government has every right to regulate harmful narcotics, but she does not believe marijuana is among them.

"There are certainly harms associated with marijuana ... the question is, are the harms associated with its prohibition greater than the harms associated with its use," she said. "And from the perspective of most Americans, that's not true."

Ultimately, it's up to each individual state to answer with their own regulations.

Earlier Coverage:

This program aired on November 15, 2012.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.


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Kathleen McNerney Senior Producer / Editor, Edify
Kathleen McNerney was the senior producer/editor of Edify.



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