HELENA — The U.S. Justice Department will prosecute individuals and organizations involved in the business of any illegal drug, including marijuana used for medical purposes permitted under state law, Michael W. Cotter, U.S. attorney for Montana, said in a letter to top legislative leaders Wednesday.
In another development on marijuana Wednesday, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he is likely to make some amendatory vetoes suggesting changes to the medical marijuana bill moving through the Legislature.
Senate Bill 423, by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, is the last surviving bill to repeal Montana's medical marijuana law and enact a new one that would impose far stricter regulations and make it much tougher for people to obtain cards to use medical marijuana.
Earlier this week, Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, and House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, wrote Cotter to ask for his guidance as the Montana Legislature completes work on SB423.
In 2004, Montanans voted, 62 percent to 38 percent, to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Since the fall of 2009, the number of medical marijuana cardholders has skyrocketed to nearly 30,000 last month.
Cotter said the Justice Department has not reviewed the specific legislative bill. But he said the U.S. Justice Department "has stated on many occasions that Congress placed marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and as such, growing, distributing and possessing marijuana in any capacity, other than as part of a federally authorized research program, is a violation of federal law, regardless of state laws that purport to permit such activities."
Cotter went on to say, "The prosecution of individuals and organizations involved in the trade of any illegal drugs and the disruption of drug trafficking organizations is a core priority of the department."
This core priority, he said, "includes prosecution of business enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana."
"While the department generally does not focus its limited resources on seriously ill individuals who use marijuana as part of a medically recommended treatment regimen consistent with applicable state law, as stated in the October 2009 Ogden Memorandum, we maintain the authority to enforce the CSA against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law," Cotter said.
Cotter added, "The department's investigative and prosecutorial resources will continue to be directed toward these objectives."
In mid-March, federal law enforcement authorities raided 26 medical marijuana growing and dispensary operations in 13 Montana cities. They said they had probable cause that these businesses were engaged in large-scale trafficking.
Cotter said then that the search warrants executed were the culmination of an "18-month, multi-agency investigation into the drug trafficking activities of criminal enterprises." He said civil seizure warrants also were executed for financial institutions in Bozeman, Helena and Kalispell that sought up to $4 million.
Regarding the bill before the Legislature, Schweitzer said he probably would have some amendments when SB423 reaches him after passing both legislative houses next week.
"They're moving to a 'grow-your-own' (marijuana system)," Schweitzer said. "It does concern me. I don't know if it will end up being 2,000 patients or 30,000 patients growing their own."
He said that would make it harder to regulate than having a smaller number of producers growing for more people.
"We have some ideas that we think will make it better," Schweitzer said.