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Medical pot looks to 'color inside the lines'

Medical marijuana businesses worried that federal agents will close them down now have a roadmap to avoid prosecution, courtesy of the Justice Department's decision to allow legal pot in Colorado and Washington state.

The agency said last week that even though the drug remains illegal under federal law, it won't intervene to block state pot laws or prosecute as long as states create strict and effective controls that follow eight conditions.

"The DOJ is saying you guys need to color inside the lines," said Teri Robnett, founder of the Cannabis Patients Action Network, a Westminster, Colo.-based medical marijuana advocacy group. "If you color inside the lines, we'll let you keep your crayons."If you don't, we can come in and take your crayons away," she said.

In states like Montana and California, an explosion in the use of medical marijuana spawned a backlash, stricter laws and tougher federal enforcement.

In California, "some cities and counties are banning (dispensaries), while others are licensing them and encouraging them," Wagner said. "It's hard to see how the current system fits the description laid out in the memo."

While advocates say it's too early to gauge the impact of the new recreational pot push, there were signs it could hurt medical marijuana.

There may be some attrition in the beginning, as bargain-hunting medical marijuana users or those wanting to avoid the government bureaucracy of state registries dabble in the recreational market, Robnett said. But most will stay because the medical strains are tailored for their illnesses, can be more potent and don't necessarily create a high while relieving their symptoms, she said.

Advocates say states with even regulations that meet or exceed regulations in those areas should not be worried about increased federal scrutiny. "It should give growers and dispensers a level of comfort that the federal government is becoming clearer in what their guidance is to U.S. attorneys," said Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

For those who do color outside the lines, the repercussions can be harsh.

Raids in 2011 led to the convictions of 33 providers and, coupled with a major rewrite of the state law, led to the demise of most commercial sales.

U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter, who orchestrated the crackdown and vows to prosecute large pot providers, said the new DOJ memo is "not going to affect the way we do business here in Montana."
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