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Governor scraps medical marijuana plan for Rhode Island

An attendee holds marijuana buds at the International Cannabis & Hemp Expo in Oakland
An attendee holds marijuana buds at the International Cannabis & Hemp Expo in Oakland

By Zach Howard

CONWAY, Mass (Reuters) - State-run medical marijuana dispensaries will not be coming to Rhode Island after Governor Lincoln Chafee scrapped the plan for fear it was illegal under federal law.

Chafee, who had earlier vowed support for the measure, said he decided the state's planned dispensaries could violate superseding federal law and become a target of federal law enforcement efforts.

"Federal injunctions, seizures, forfeitures, arrests and prosecutions will only hurt the patients and caregivers that our law was designed to protect," the governor said in the statement late Thursday.

Before his reversal, Chafee had hoped to implement a 2009 law passed by Rhode Island's General Assembly allowing marijuana distribution through three state-run, so-called "compassion centers."

The measure authorized growing and selling marijuana to patients with debilitating illnesses, such as cancer, AIDS, and glaucoma.

Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia allow the drug for medical use.

One of them is Montana, where in March federal agents raided state-sanctioned medical marijuana greenhouses and dispensaries in several cities, prompting an outcry from legalized pot suppliers. The busts, the first since Montana legalized marijuana for medical purposes in 2004, appeared to mark a reversal of federal policy set in 2009 that tolerated state-approved dispensaries.

Threatening a similar crackdown in Rhode Island, both the U.S. Department of Justice and Rhode Island's U.S. Attorney, Peter Neronha, this year said commercial operations such as the state-run dispensaries would be potential targets of "vigorous" criminal and civil enforcement efforts by the federal government.

Dropping the dispensary plan means that patients in Rhode Island will have to continue to grow their own marijuana, buy the drug illegally from "street" dealers, or acquire it from over 2,500 licensed caregivers in the state. Many have said they would prefer to use dispensaries for a convenient, safe, regulated option for quality marijuana.

Medical marijuana advocates decried Chafee's decision.

"We are shocked, outraged and really hurt all at the same time," JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of Providence-based Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, told Reuters.

Keith Stroup, legal counsel with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, a Washington, D.C.-based marijuana smoker's lobby, said his group was disappointed with Chafee's action.

"He's using the threat of federal enforcement somehow coming into the state as a justification to refuse to implement the medical marijuana dispensary provisions that previously have been approved," he said.

But long-time opponents including state Representative Doreen Costa cheered the plan's demise.

"I am very happy that he did that," said Costa, a Republican, who said some of her constituents did not want a dispensary in their district.

"Mainly the concern was, in the state of Rhode Island, marijuana is illegal, period. So if he wanted to open up the compassion centers, people would go buy the marijuana and I know they would be selling it on the street," Costa said.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)

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