DOVER, Del. (AP) - Gov. Jack Markell said Thursday that he is moving forward with a medical marijuana program in Delaware after halting plans last year over fears that state officials could be subject to federal prosecution.
Markell signed a medical marijuana bill in 2011 but halted implementation after federal officials indicated that people involved in cultivating and distributing marijuana could face civil fines or prosecution.
In a letter to lawmakers Thursday, Markell proposed a scaled-down pilot program involving a single, state-licensed "compassion center" that would grow and distribute marijuana to eligible medical patients. The bill he signed in 2011 called for three such centers, one in each county.
Seeking to allay federal concerns about multiple large-scale privately operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers, Markell proposed that the Delaware compassion center be limited to growing no more 150 plants and an on-site inventory of no more than 1,500 ounces of marijuana.
He also said regulations that the state Department of Health and Social Services will propose would require around-the-clock security monitoring at the center and measures to ensure that it dispenses marijuana only to eligible patients and caregivers.
The proposed regulations also will require the center to report missing marijuana within 24 hours and to disclose the source of any funds over $5,000.
In a letter to state Rep. Helene Keeley and state Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, Wilmington Democrats who were the chief sponsors of the billl, Markell said his office has spent the past few months reviewing policies adopted by other states in response to conflicting signals from the federal government.
"The sensible and humane aim of state policy in Delaware remains to ensure that medical marijuana is accessible via a safe, well-regulated channel of distribution to patients with demonstrated medical need," he wrote.
Asked about Markell's proposal, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Charles Oberly III reiterated that federal law "unambiguously" prohibits the growing, distributing, or possession of marijuana outside a federally authorized research program.
"While this office does not intend to focus its limited resources on seriously ill individuals who use marijuana as part of a medically recommended treatment program in compliance with state law, individuals and organizations who are in the business of cultivating, selling, or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, will be in violation of federal law and be subject to federal enforcement," USAO spokeswoman Kim Reeves said in a prepared statement.
Under Delaware's law, the state Department of Health and Social Services is authorized to issue identification cards to qualified patients and caregivers to protect them from prosecution for possessing marijuana.
DHSS Secretary Rita Landgraf said Thursday that there currently are 39 cardholders, but they have no way of obtaining the drug legally in Delaware.
Keeley said advocates have told her that hundreds more people are waiting in the wings. Medical conditions eligible for treatment with medical marijuana in Delaware include cancer, AIDS, Hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, Alzheimer's disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. "My concern was never with the feds," Keeley said.
"My concern was that patients who have no other recourse for the extreme pain they're in on a daily basis have a legal course of action for them to get relief."
Landgraf said her department plans to draft regulations for selecting a vendor for the nonprofit compassion center by Oct. 1. DHSS would issue a request for proposals early next year and select a vendor by late April or early May. The center could be up and running by next summer, she said. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, a national policy reform group, 20 states and the District of Columbia have authorized the use of medical marijuana.