High Level Health, a medical marijuana shop on East Colfax Avenue in Denver. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

Is this pro-pot Ohio senator ignoring the Cole Memo and other states’ weed laws?

Ohio state senator Kenny Yuko has been working to legalize medical marijuana in the state for more than a dozen years. So of course Yuko is one of the many pro-legalization voices still celebrating after Gov. John Kasich signed medical cannabis into law earlier this month.

But perhaps Yuko is a little too excited on the issue, as he appears to be encouraging Ohio residents to break other states’ laws and to ignore the federal government’s single-most important guidance on marijuana laws inside the United States?

While speaking with Ohio Public Radio’s Statehouse News Bureau in early June, Yuko talked about the time it will take to write regulations and eventually implement the legal medical sales — and he offered some advice to medical marijuana patients in Ohio who can’t wait for state sales to begin. From the Statehouse News Bureau’s June 9 report:

That committee has two years to get everything in place. But (Yuko) says Ohioans should be able to legally use marijuana by the beginning of September. All they need to do is get their official recommendation from their doctor and go to a state that already legally distributes marijuana.

“Michigan or Pennsylvania. Get the product, come home, we’ll protect them with that card from law enforcement harassing them until we get our dispensaries up and running.”

So Yuko is telling qualified Buckeye MMJ patients to cross into Michigan or Pennsylvania and purchase medical marijuana inside those regulated markets — and then bring that cannabis back into Ohio, where their use will be protected.

Sounds sensible, right? Perhaps — unless you’re familiar with how most states dispense medical pot and how the federal government keeps an eye on these state-legal markets. Here are some of the problems with Yuko’s suggestion.

One, Pennsylvania marijuana dispensaries won’t be up and running until late-2017 at the earliest — Gov. Tom Wolf only signed it into law on April 17. A spokesman for one of the Pennsylvania MMJ bill’s key sponsors estimated in April that it will take a year and a half to create the regulatory framework that would allow the shops to open.

Two, even if Pennsylvania’s pot shops were open for business, they wouldn’t dispense medical marijuana to non-residents. Michigan’s pot shops are up and running, and they similarly only dispense cannabis to in-state residents. Michigan does offer reciprocity to states that offer it back, but there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the legality of accepting MMJ licenses and doctor recommendations from other states.

So if an Ohioan crossed into either of those states and bought cannabis, they wouldn’t have likely done so legally.

Three, Yuko’s suggestion to bring marijuana that was purchased out of state into Ohio is in direct conflict with the Cole Memo, which is the most significant guidance the federal government has issued to states implementing their own cannabis laws. Issued by the Department of Justice in mid-2013, the Cole Memo offers eight areas of concentration serving as guidance to law enforcement and prosecutors on where to focus their cannabis efforts. One of the memo’s focus areas: “Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states.”

The federal government hasn’t forgotten about the Cole Memo. Earlier this year the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report saying the Justice Department needed to do a better job documenting states’ work on the memo’s eight priorities.

Neighbor states Oregon and Washington went through a similar learning process in mid-2015. As Oregon’s legalization law was about to go into effect on July 1, Portland police told reporters they weren’t concerned with “people who are going (to Washington) to buy their weed and bringing it back” — but the cannabis-regulating Oregon Liquor Control Commission advised Oregon residents against the practice because of the Cole Memo.

Ohio state senator Yuko told The Cannabist that the goal of the “affirmative defense” written into Ohio’s medical marijuana law “is to expedite access for patients with qualifying conditions and a physician recommendation by protecting them from conviction of possession of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia. This was considered an appropriate compromise to not make those in significant need wait while Ohio took the important time to effectively establish the regulatory system,” he wrote in an e-mail.

In other words: If an Ohio medical marijuana patient has one of the state’s qualifying conditions and a doctor’s recommendation, their possession and use of cannabis will eventually be protected inside Ohio.

But how will these patients secure marijuana legally before sales start in Ohio? Yuko acknowledged that his neighbor states have rules and laws he can’t control — and that he didn’t know how the federal government would react to patients procuring their cannabis in another state and crossing back into Ohio.

“I recognize that other states have their own standards for patient access and we cannot dictate what those are,” Yuko said. “The affirmative defense would protect those in Ohio. This is separate from the long-term goal of establishing reciprocity with other states that authorize medical marijuana.

“I am not going to try and predict a response from federal law enforcement, but I believe the Cole Memo is intended to prevent marijuana moving from legal to illegal markets by crossing state lines. The affirmative defense does not interfere with this goal as it applies only to possession and no other possible marijuana related crimes.”