Ten months after President Obama took office, his Justice Department issued a remarkable directive.
The Ogden memo, named after the deputy attorney general who penned it, suggested US Attorneys shouldn't prosecute those acting in "clear and unambiguous compliance" with state-level medical marijuana laws.
The missive marked a sharp departure from the tough-on-ganja approach of the Clinton and Bush administrations. And it won wide praise from pot activists and libertarian types.
But the cheering turned to lusty boos this spring when US Attorneys, in an apparent attempt to rein in the rapid growth of largescale medical marijuana dispensaries, sent threatening letters to governors and legislators in several states.
Rhode Island US Attorney Peter Neronha was among them, warning in a late-April note to Governor Lincoln Chafee that he wouldn't hesitate to go after those involved in three soon-to-open dispensaries or "compassion centers."
The letters, here and elsewhere, have been quite effective to date.
Governor Chafee put a hold on the compassion center program. Democrat Christine Gregoire, governor of Washington, vetoed most of a bill that aimed to license growers and dispensaries. Republican Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, used a US Attorney's letter as justification for her push to block a voter-approved dispensary program.
And one can only imagine the chilling effect on would-be pot entrepreneurs in states like Massachusetts, which is expected to consider a medical marijuana law of its own.
Advocates across the country held out hope, amid the rollback, that a long-awaited Department of Justice "clarification" of the Ogden memo would temper the US Attorneys' newly aggressive posture.
But it did not.
The so-called Cole memo, issued two weeks ago, says federal prosecutors should steer clear of patients and caregivers growing in small quantities. But it gives full license to go after those "in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana" — those who would bring pot out of the basement and into the mainstream.
The message to Rhode Island and other states is clear: slow medical marijuana's explosive growth, or else.
But should Governor Chafee listen?
Pot is illegal under federal law, of course. So any administration wrestling with enforcement issues must engage in a deliberate vagueness.
The Ogden memo is a prime example. Though it was undoubtedly a landmark shift in policy, it was carefully phrased.
It spoke not of ignoring the law, but of "making efficient and rational use" of the department's "limited investigative and prosecutorial resources." And while the directive strongly suggested that federal prosecutors stay away from patients and caregivers — a message reinforced by the Cole memo a couple of weeks ago — it made no specific mention of dispensaries.
It also warned that "prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority." And it warned that the feds would crack down on anyone using state law as a mask for illegal activity.
But despite the caveats and subtle omissions, many advocates and lawmakers read Ogden as a green light for dispensaries that operated in accordance with state law — or, at least, a wink and a nod.