PHOENIX (AP) - Gov. Jan Brewer said Tuesday that she plans to put Arizona's new medical marijuana plan on hold as the state files a federal lawsuit to find out whether state employees regulating the program would face prosecution.
The governor's action was a response to a May 2 letter from U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke that said even if Arizona law allows for a medical marijuana program, his office "will continue to vigorously prosecute individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing, distribution and marketing activity involving marijuana."
In the letter, Burke said "property owners, landlords and financiers" of medical marijuana could face federal criminal prosecution. Although he made no mention of state employees, Brewer said the letter clearly means that they could be in jeopardy of prosecution for regulating the program.
"That letter muddied the waters," Brewer said at a news conference. "I intend to get answers because people's lives and careers are at stake."
She asked state Attorney General Tom Horne to file a lawsuit in federal court seeking a declaratory judgment about the legality of Arizona's program. Horne said he plans to file the suit Friday.
The Arizona Department of Health Services oversees Arizona's program, which went into effect last month but is not yet up and running. Arizona voters approved the program in November, and the state Department of Health began issuing medical marijuana cards to patients last month, with about 3,100 applications approved through May 18.
Would-be dispensaries were going to be allowed to begin applying to operate on June 1, but Horne said they won't be allowed to do that until a judgment is issued. He did not know how long that would take.
Will Humble, director of the Department of Health Services, declined to comment until he knows more, but said in his blog that patients will continue to get medical marijuana cards.
The department finalized rules regulating the state's medical marijuana program in February, some of the most stringent in the country. Fourteen other states and Washington, D.C., have approved medical marijuana.
Arizona's measure only allows for 125 dispensaries in the entire state, compared to more than 1,000 dispensaries in California at its program's peak and more than 800 pot shops in Colorado.
Brewer and Humble both spoke out against the medical marijuana measure before voters approved it, but Brewer said she's not making a judgment about it now — that she's simply seeking guidance to protect Department of Health Services employees and officers with the Department of Public Safety.
Rob Kampia, executive director at the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement that he was "deeply frustrated" by Arizona's move. The group funds efforts to pass medical marijuana measures in states and advocates for legalized marijuana nationwide.
"The law was drafted so that a very limited number of non-profit dispensaries would serve the needs of patients who would be registered with the state," Kampia said. "Governor Brewer is trying to disrupt this orderly system and replace it with relative chaos."
He said San Diego attempted a similar effort in 2005 when it sought to enjoin most of California's medical marijuana law to no avail.
May 24, 2011 6:52 PM ET
By AMANDA LEE MYERS
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Ariz. officials to put medical pot program on hold