DOVER, DE — As the two-year anniversary of the signing of Delaware’s medical marijuana act approaches in May, state officials look to move forward with the now-halted medical marijuana program.
On May 13, 2011, Gov. Jack A. Markell signed legislation to allow state-regulated distribution of medical marijuana in good faith. The federal government had issued a memorandum in 2009 from then-U.S. Attorney General David W. Ogden, which had stated it was not a priority of the federal government to prosecute patients and their caregivers acting “in clear and ambiguous compliance” with state laws.
“It was largely based on that guidance,” Gov. Markell said of Senate Bill 17.
The act does not allow individuals to grow medical marijuana, but allows a patient with certain qualifying conditions, such as HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis, to purchase up to six ounces of marijuana from any of the three proposed state-regulated compassion distribution centers.
Patients, at least 18 years of age, and caregivers for homebound patients can apply for an ID card which grants protection from arrest.
However in June 2011, after the governor signed the bill, the U.S. Department of Justice issued another memorandum, this time from new U.S. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, to U.S. attorneys general that represented a change in their stance on state-regulated medical marijuana facilities. The federal government may prosecute individuals who cultivate, sell or distribute medical marijuana, “who knowingly facilitate such activities … regardless of state law.”
Gov. Markell said the state’s compassion center workers and the commercial centers would not be immune to prosecution. Given the federal government’s amended stance, the governor has halted the licensing process for the three compassion centers mandated in the bill.
The compassion centers, regulated by the state’s Department of Health and Social Services, should have been taking applications by July 1, 2012, and issued registration certificates by Jan. 1, 2013.
Gov. Markell said he hopes the issue will be resolved within this legislative session. His team has begun brainstorming new plans by evaluating the logistics of different medical marijuana programs in states such as Rhode Island, New Jersey and Maryland.
On the last day of their legislature, April 7, the Maryland General Assembly approved a measure which would allow medical marijuana programs at state research centers. The Associated Press reported that Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is likely to sign the bill. The bill includes a provision which enables their governor to suspend the program if the federal government decides to prosecute the state employees who administer it.
“So we are right now looking in the other states,” Gov. Markell said. “We are currently reviewing steps they have taken.”
“We wanted to move forward then [in 2011] and we would still like to move forward,” he added.
Though the licensing process for state-run compassion centers has been suspended, at this current time the state’s Division of Public Health has issued 22 medical marijuana ID cards.
Thom May, the division’s Health Systems Protection chief, said Delaware licensed physicians, under state law, can issue certifications for medical marijuana IDs. Individuals are either approved or denied within 45 days, and a card is issued 30 days after approval. Cards are valid for one year after the date issued.
Licensing fees are on a sliding scale based on the 2012 poverty guidelines — ranging from $125 to 0.
Mr. May said the program has two full-time employees that are funded by the General Fund. The remainder of the program is supported through licensing fees associated with the program.
“We’ve implemented the program as it has been passed taking into consideration the governor’s plans,” he said. “At this time the program is in good shape. Our focus is basically on issuing the medical marijuana cards.”
The division has had some discussions about various states’ programs, but it has been difficult to implement any new provisions due to, he said, “state specific ripples.”
“It’s not a cut and paste situation,” he said.
Even with the suspension of the compassion centers, he said the program receives in the neighborhood of 60 phone calls a month from interested applicants.
“We have a lot of folks interested in maintaining the medical marijuana card given the suspension and we continue to review our regulations and monitor medical marijuana issues that are ongoing throughout the country,” Mr. May said.