Feds Blunt Delaware's Medical-Marijuana Law

Posted by Michael P. StaffordOn February 13, 2012In: Delaware Specific, Drug Testing, Legislative Update

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Delaware's medical-marijuana program has gone up in smoke. According to the News Journal, Gov. Markell "has suspended the regulation-writing and licensing process for medical-marijuana dispensaries--effectively killing the program." The decision comes in response to a letter from U.S. Attorney Charles M. Oberly III.

The governor's office sought guidance from Oberly about the legal implications of state employees who work at a dispensary. Oberly's response was clear: "State employees who conduct activities mandated by the Delaware Medical Marijuana Act are not immune from liability" under the Controlled Substances Act.

The death of the Delaware Medical Marijuana Act (DMMA), which was passed in May, 2011, is not due to a unique defect in the statue itself, which shares common elements with other state medical marijuana laws. Instead, the crux of the problem is the intersection of state and federal law and the shifting approach to enforcement taken by the Obama administration.

Despite state statutes like the DMMA, marijuana, medicinal or otherwise, remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act as a "Schedule 1" controlled substance--the same category as drugs like heroin and LSD.

When the DMMA was passed in May 2011, legislators were under the impression that the federal government would not prosecute employees in future dispensaries. This understanding was due to representations by the Obama administration that it would not prosecute individuals for marijuana offenses made legal under state law. That position has changed, however, and the federal Department of Justice is now drawing a distinction between physicians prescribing medicinal marijuana, and individual cardholders, on the one hand, and "large scale, privately owned industrial cultivation centers" on the other. This is problematic for Delaware because the DMMA initially centralizes marijuana distribution in just three Compassion Centers (with one located in each county).

The uncertainty created by contradictory enforcement signals at the federal level has impacted the implementation of medicinal marijuana legislation in other states as well. As we posted previously, a Justice Department warning that "state employees who conducted activities mandated [under a proposed law] would not be immune from liability" led Washington Gov. Gregoire to veto that state's medical-marijuana bill. Similar warnings of potential enforcement actions targeting marijuana dispensaries also led Rhode Island Gov. Chafee to halt plans to create state-licensed compassion centers, as well.

The news should be a relief to Delaware employers concerned about the workplace implications of the DMMA which, among other things, would have made it unlawful for an employer to terminate a cardholder for failing a drug test unless they "used, possessed, or (were) impaired by marijuana" while at work during normal hours. The DMMA also specified that the mere presence of marijuana components or metabolites in a cardholders system would not suffice to establish that they were under the influence of the drug.

While some effort to amend the DMMA to address federal enforcement concerns is likely, for now, medical marijuana's future in Delaware appears hazy, at best.

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