Obama's War on Weed

In a strange about-face, the President tries to hack medical marijuana off at the knees

The new federal crackdown on medical marijuana announced on October 7 by the four California U.S. Attorneys sent chills throughout the industry. It was a stunning reversal by the Obama administration.

Only two years ago, Deputy U.S. Attorney General David Ogden wrote his infamous “Ogden Memo,” announcing the feds wouldn’t bother businesses in compliance with their own state laws. It proved a dose of Miracle-Gro to California, where pot-selling stores multiplied since voters approved the state’s 1996 medical marijuana law. By late last year, California reportedly had more dispensaries than Starbucks outlets.

Colorado also made it legal in 2000, seeing a similar explosion of new storefronts. The same thing was happening to varying degrees in 16 states, from Arizona to Washington, New Jersey to Delaware.

But the feds’ tolerance wasn’t quite what it seemed. While legal weed grew to an estimated $10 to $100 billion industry – no one’s quite sure of the exact figure – activists noticed an alarming undercurrent to the rhetoric: Raids on growers and dispensaries actually increased under Obama.

As hundreds of thousands of state-approved, doctor-recommended patients happily bought their medicine in well-lit stores from knowledgeable “budtenders,” the ire of cops and prohibitionists rose.

The first sign of Obama’s subterfuge came in late 2010, as California prepared to vote on a ballot proposition that would have legalized growing and possessing small amounts of marijuana for anyone over the age of 21. Under pressure from teetotalers -- nine former Drug Enforcement Agency chiefs begged Obama to oppose the measure -- Attorney General Eric Holder said that it didn’t matter what Californians thought. The feds would continue to bust people regardless of the election.

The measure got 46 percent of the vote, but not enough to pass. Yet the medical side of things kept going strong – too strong for Obama. When the Oakland City Council prepared to authorize large-scale cultivation centers, Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for California’s Northern District, issued the first in what would become a series of letters from her fellow attorneys general. She reminded residents – in no uncertain terms – that marijuana was still criminalized under federal law, considered equal to heroin or meth, irrespective of its medicinal value.

Nor did she care what California law said. Her “core priority” would be to prosecute “business enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana” under federal law.

Over the next few months, attorneys general from Maine to Washington wrote their own increasingly menacing letters. In Washington, the feds even threatened to arrest state workers who helped facilitate the industry.

Then the Obama administration released a new letter to “clarify” Ogden’s memo. Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole verified the about-face: The only people safe from arrest were the “seriously ill” patients and their caregivers.

Everyone else? Be forewarned.

The letter didn’t just target those directly involved in the trade. Cole was also threatening supporting industries – read: banks –with money laundering charges for dealing in the proceeds from marijuana. Obama had launched a full-on attack on the industries essential to any functioning enterprise.

Banks responded by canceling their weed-related accounts. “Perhaps there may be a few financial institutions here or there that are still accepting accounts,” says Caroline Joy, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Bankers Association. “Those facilities don’t want to reveal who they are.”

The president’s push grew louder last month. The U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms bureau warned medical-marijuana patients that they couldn’t legally use pot and own or buy guns.

Then came a one-two punch.

On October 5, the IRS ruled that one of the largest California dispensaries, Harborside Health Center, owed $2.5 million in taxes because federal law precluded standard deductions for businesses engaging in illegal activity.

In other words, Obama was not only blowing off state laws. He was declaring that legal businesses were now nothing more than criminal rackets. And he was carving away every tool they needed to function.

Harborside’s owner said he’d go out of business if the IRS didn’t reverse course. Dispensaries nationwide saw it as a crippling decision.

Then came another blow two days later: The bombshell dropped by California’s four U.S. Attorneys.

They were now going after people who leased stores and land to the pot industry. Violators were given 45 days to close doors, uproot plants, and kick out renters. The penalty for not acting: Seizure of property and arrest.

Laura Duffy, the U.S attorney from California’s Southern District, went so far as to threaten media with prosecution for taking pot advertising.  (Disclosure:  This newspaper accepts such ads.)

There was no doubt about it: Obama was intent on killing an entire industry – in the middle of a depression, no less. Left unexplained was why, especially since he was giving the finger to voters in 16 states just a year before he would face them in his own election.

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Democratic strategists were perplexed. Roger Salazar, a California party consultant, believes the president may be trying to reach out to a broader base. But that doesn’t explain the attack on his own base; Democrats support medical marijuana at high percentages. It doesn’t even make sense in luring conservatives. With the country in economic tatters, no one has weed high on their radar.

Except one group, says Salazar: “It’s a mystery, I think, it really is, where the pressure is coming from. My sense is it’s coming from law enforcement.”

Certainly Obama’s threats are real. He may be loath to jail landlords, bankers or even dispensary owners. Arresting non-violent, state-sanctioned businesspeople wouldn’t be popular. But his quieter war of chopping merchants off at the knees through credit and leasing would ravage the trade.

Still, the president has thrown himself into an uphill fight. There is reason to believe medical marijuana will persist, despite his betrayal.

Marijuana really is medicine

Earlier this month, in a timely coincidence, the California Medical Association’s board voted to encourage the feds to legalize marijuana.

Though spokeswoman Molly Weedn emphasizes that the decision by the doctors' group hinges on a call for more research, a report studied by the CMA board before its decision makes it clear that -- at the least -- marijuana shows promise as a medicine.

The CMA's Council on Clinical and Scientific Affairs "has also concluded that components of medical cannabis may be effective for the treatment of pain, nausea, anorexia, and other conditions."

The report goes on to say:

"Cannabinoids are presently thought to exhibit their greatest efficacy when implemented for the management of neuropathic pain, which is a form of severe and often chronic pain resulting from nerve injury, disease, or toxicity."

The University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) recently reported to the California legislature the results of a number of studies. Four studies involved the treatment of neuropathic pain; and all four demonstrated a significant improvement in pain after cannabis administration.

The doctors note that while using marijuana may contain risks, such as addiction, they argue that its prohibition may be more dangerous than the drug itself:

"Under the current prohibition of cannabis, public health is also affected by increased rates of crime surrounding cannabis cultivation, sale and use. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that the incarceration and parole supervision of cannabis offenders costs the state tens of millions of dollars annually."

Nationally, prohibition burns through billions of dollars in lives lost to the violence inherent in the black market, the incarceration of thousands of productive, non-violent Americans, and the lack of access to a beneficial medicine.

Are lots of people using weed without suffering from a medical problem? Absolutely. But just because you've heard that half or more of patients take the drug for "severe and chronic pain" doesn't mean they're all faking it.

In June, the Institute of Medicine estimated that 116 million Americans suffer from significant, chronic pain.

As more research comes in showing that pot can be an effective treatment, and with America's elderly population exploding in the coming decades, the interest in its medicinal qualities seems only likely to rise.

The truth will prevail

Ignorance, false propaganda and rank political posturing tend to be the foundation of the anti-marijuana argument. (Throw in bureaucratic turf protection as well. The DEA, for example, would need fewer agents if pot was decriminalized nationwide.)

A new Gallup pollshows that a record 50 percent of Americans believe marijuana -- and not just the medical kind – should be legalized. The poll follows a continuing trend over the past several years of increasing support for legalization.

Obama has chosen to swim against the tide. But there’s reason to believe his fight is about politics, not public safety. If this were about safety, alcohol would be his primary target.  

Politics cause both sides to fudge the truth. Yet prohibitionists and the government have been particularly egregious. The government is using taxpayer dollars to prop up its side, with the U.S. Justice Department's 64-page booklet, "Speaking Out About Drug Legalization,” being a prime example.

The booklet, distributed in print and online, states that "smoked marijuana is not scientifically approved medicine." Forget that by labeling it a drug on par with heroin, the DEA is curtailing the proper study of marijuana, since it prevents even scientists from possessing it for research. The publicly-funded propaganda also flies in the face of the opinion of doctors, who see pot’s potential as medicine.

It’s a strategy that’s trickled to states with functionaries unhappy about executing the voters’ will. Last December in Arizona, Will Humble, the state’s  Department of Health Services director, held a news conference about the state's new  Medical Marijuana Act. He took a moment to remind reporters that more than 1,000 Arizonans died last year from accidental overdoses from prescription drugs.

But when asked how many of those died from marijuana, Humble refused to answer -- to chuckles from the audience. He referred the question to his chief medical officer, Laura Nelson, who would only say she'd "have to do the research on that" before she could answer.

Then Nelson began stammering about the danger of marijuana due to "car accidents" -- though she had done no research on that, either.

The CMA's new report, interestingly enough, sheds light on statements like Nelson's. It says that prohibitionists often make unsubstantiated claims about car crashes or other purported harms. Studies disagree on its risks to motorists, though there’s no question that booze increases the chances of a crash, the report says. Moreover, simulated driving tests reveal that pot smokers overestimate their degree of impairment and “compensate effectively.”

If one were a cynic, one might also view U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy’s threat to target advertising as a less than subtle threat to control the debate.

True: Federal law prohibits advertising illegal drugs. Google, for example, agreed to pay a $500 million fine this summer for taking online ads promoting rogue Canadian pharmacies.

But pot dispensaries are legal businesses within their states. Under Duffy’s threat, the feds will have their say, while the pro-pot message would be erased from public view.

  Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, tells Dallas Observer that Duffy's threat gave him the willies.

"They're on much thinner ice going after the newspaper," says Scheidegger, who otherwise believes the feds should enforce its own laws against marijuana. "... Maybe there is a political strategy."

It’s called the "shut them up" strategy.

There will be pushback

Federal law is, for now, on the side of the prohibitionists.

Scheidegger downplays the state victories handed to medical marijuana. He says if the American people want to change the law, they need to encourage Congress to do so.

Yet that ignores a basic political reality: It's extremely difficult for any politician to stand up for marijuana. He or she will be quickly painted as pro-pothead.

Like women's suffrage, the medical marijuana movement has -- in 10 states, anyway -- benefited by the direct democracy of citizens initiatives. These elections have taken the pulse of voters in a way that congressional elections cannot.

In six other states and Washington D.C., medical marijuana was legalized by local lawmakers. Other States are bound to vote in favor of decriminalizing pot in the next few years in spite of federal laws.

Phoenix attorney Ty Taber sees it as a major states' rights issue. "Basically, the citizens of these states ... they want marijuana legalized," he says. If Obama wants to play hardball, he says, "You're going to get pushback."

Taber represents Compassion First, a company that helps set up dispensaries. The firm sued Arizona after Governor Jan Brewer, in blatant defiance of voters' wishes, derailed the dispensary portion of Arizona's new law by instructing the Department of Health to reject applications. She simultaneously sued the federal government, asking a judge to rule on whether the state’s new law was legal. (Ironically, the U.S. Justice Department’s civil department is defending against the lawsuit – and if the feds win, Arizona might just get its first dispensaries.)

Compassion First wants the program implemented as Arizonans intended, and to remove blockades Brewer has thrown in its path.

For instance, Arizona requires dispensary owners to have been residents for at least three years.

But the point isn't so much whether or not the company will win its lawsuit or not -- it's that they're fighting back, and they're not alone.

Across the country, advocates are returning fire of their own in the court system Which means Obama won’t be able to do battle by the relatively cheap means of letters and threats. He’ll likely end up burning through millions of dollars in litigation – money he doesn’t have.

Taber thinks the president may have underestimated his foe.  "The people behind this marijuana movement -- they're committed. They are zealots. And these are smart people -- not stoners saying, 'Hey dude, pass another slice of pizza.'"

Half-hearted crackdowns don't work

The latest crackdown will be bad for the pot business. No question. But Obama could be doing much, much more. He could go after patients. Over the summer, a federal judge ruled that the DEA could peek at the names on Michigan's patient registry. Because marijuana is illegal under federal law, said Judge Hugh Brenneman Jr., patients can't expect privacy.

The feds could also hit pot-tolerant cities. The law doesn't allow municipal workers to be jailed in such prosecutions, but cities or counties could be heavily fined just for setting up zoning requirements for dispensaries.

There’s a huge downside to that, of course. Obama will only appear mean and small for having sickly grandmas arrested. And fining cities just enrages residents picking up the tab – the very people the president will need a year from now.

All of which leaves him fighting at partial speed. That, in turn, leaves the "zealots" Tyber mentions betting their money and freedom that even if the feds throw the book at some, it won't be them.

Last week, the feds raided several growing operations in California and Oregon, including one in Mendocino County; that appeared to be playing by the state rules. But it seems safe to assume that few of the hundreds of other growers in Mendocino County did not uproot their crops in response -- just as the hundreds of dispensaries in California did not immediately close their doors after the feds' ominous warning on October 7.

The industry seems to be practicing a form of civil disobedience. And it has tens of thousands of seriously sick people behind it, who will holler loudly if they're forced back to the black market.

Indeed, there are some signs that Obama's crackdown will be what the SF Weekly's Chris Roberts calls a "Passive Aggressive" strategy. Rather than offend Americans with news footage of police raids, Obama has launched a war of attrition.

Landlords, worried the feds will steal their property, will tell dispensaries to move out. Banks won't handle money for pot-themed businesses. Dispensaries will be taxed so heavily they won't be to cover the payroll or pay the electric bill.

Yet it remains to be seen whether federal prosecutors, who undoubtedly have even more serious criminals with which to contend, are willing and able to carry out the threat. When Jack Gillund, Melinda Haag’s spokesman, was asked whether her office had the resources to go after every dispensary or grower who doesn’t comply with the 45-day deadline, he offered a simple reply: “No comment.”

Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in California’s Eastern District, says Wagner’s goal isn’t to shut down everything. He’s focusing on “large, professional, money-making operations – the commercial operations.”

Horwood also says that it’s wrong to call it “Obama’s crackdown.” She says the California U.S. Attorneys decided to take action on their own because the situation has grown out of control among recreational users. But she acknowledges that they received Obama’s blessing.  

It’s classic political strategy: Send the underlings out to take the heat, while the bosses hide under their skirts.  

Either way, the end result casts Obama as even more zealous than George W. Bush. Bush threatened owners of dispensary properties in 2007, but never followed up. Meanwhile, Colorado and other states have seen no similar crackdowns. Only time will tell whether Obama plans to destroy the entire medical marijuana industry, or merely smack California around for a bit.

“I’m willing to give the Obama Administration the benefit of the doubt,” says Blair Butterworth, a Democratic consultant in Seattle, where about 100 dispensaries operate. “In California, they may be sitting on uncontrollable drug sales. They need to slap some wrists.”

It’s easy to pick on California, a state known for its excesses. But “the last thing Obama needs right now is to go to war nationally with the medical marijuana community,” Butterworth says.

Leniency for marijuana users, medical or otherwise, continues to be a popular Democratic stance, he says. Butterworth is helping the campaign to put outright legalization on the Washington state ballot next year. He thinks it’s got a good chance.

Of course, a successful election could just tick off the feds even more.

A million patients can't be wrong An estimated one million people in California have obtained a doctor's recommendation to grow and use marijuana legally. More than 150,000 medical marijuana patients have registered in Colorado as of July. Tens of thousands of patients are registered in the other weed-friendly states. If the feds shut down every dispensary in the country, all these people will still be able to legally possess marijuana – no matter where they bought it – under their state laws. The only difference is they’ll be forced to go back to buying their weed from Mexican drug cartels, rather than Americans who provide jobs and pay taxes.

It’s akin to the feds saying that Anheuser-Busch can no longer sell beer; they’d prefer that people only buy from Al Capone.

Hey, wait -- didn't something like that happen?

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124 comments
Red_Eye_Girl_4434
Red_Eye_Girl_4434

@Weed......Тhis is сrаzу...Мy friеnd`s sistеr mакеs 78/hr оn thе intеrnеt. Shе hаs bееn unеmрlоуеd fоr 11 mоnths but lаst mоnth hеr incоmе wаs 7985$ јust wоrкing оn thе РС fоr а fеw hоurs. Gо tо this wеb sitе .......http://alturl.com/6kb9y

mskat
mskat

@ President Obama, I can appreciate what you are trying to do but you need to understand that most of these people have serious pain. I don't live in Califorina and yes maybe they are out of control but, the fact is there are people that really need this. As for myself I am tired of taking umteem pills a day, so if the weed works I'd like to have it. At this point I belived Doctors just give out pills so they can make more money. Pills all day still in pain. QUESTION why don't they just legalize it and charge taxes like they do everything else.

Mike rt
Mike rt

The idea was that the Feds would look the other way if California would control its use to people on bona fide medical programs, a tiny insignificant share of the population. Instead, a state that could not collectively pour water out of boot if the instructions were on the heel, completely screwed it up. What did they think the Feds were going to do? We do not get to choose the laws we obey or enforce. In the process, California likely screwed it for other states that actually had other purposes than getting their citizens high.

Marykcroft
Marykcroft

This is NOT something Obama did. It was cooked up by the 4 US Attorneys, plus some others with deep pockets. I personally suspect drug cartels, considering they are much more active in becoming the new Al Capone: http://tinyurl.com/3zy7b4j

mynameisURL
mynameisURL

Time for a new "War".

How about a "War On Drug Enforcement".

...got a nice ring to it...

Bogus
Bogus

The war on drugs is not working. Just as any lab tech in any hospital in any town how many positive drug screens they have every 24 hours.

Travelsteve
Travelsteve

Being a native Dallasite, but having moved to California in the early 80's I know I made the best move of my life for a multitude of reasons. Just reading this article makes me wonder what is in the water down there. We have more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks. How many does Texas have? And President Obama has made it a point not only to stop prosecuting those that are caught with small amounts of it, but to decriminalize it. We can grow it LEGALLY in our own yards with a permit. And there are now counties that have re-written their laws that allow growers for state dispensaries to have up to 99 plants so long as they pay taxes on it. This article is bogus. President Obama has been a champion to our communuity. He knows and understands our progressive state. He is even here today, for the second time in a month.I'm glad that I left Texas when I see nut jobs like Rick Perry and Ron Paul romping around the country and when I read articles like the one here. Texas still has dry areas. What is that about? Say what you will, and think what you want. But here in California, we don't need to secede. But are moving forward, and not stuck in neutral with a neanderthal as our governor. And whoever Ray Stern is that wrote this article; he is full of it. But think what you want.

MikeG
MikeG

Most Obama suporters have a solution to the pot problem, roll it up in paper and burn it.

Joeybrown
Joeybrown

Don't let him know how many sheets of toilet peper you use>

Tootall
Tootall

Again the federal government is trying to dictate what state governments should do. What is next for this administration to try to control? The current administration only wants to follow the law when is it benefical to them. Remember this in 2012

anita
anita

Legalize it and tax it then maybe we can address the bigger problems like the DEFICIT and the UNEMPLOYMENT RATE.

kt
kt

no I think he's stoned.

Montemalone
Montemalone

Fat people are weird.Or is it smelly?One of those, I'm sure.

CHDFW
CHDFW

I find it funny that laws, way back when, were designed racially to prevent black people from consuming canibus. Now you have a black president and a black Attorney General continuing the eforcement of laws that by design & Intent say your ethniticity becomes to out of control when used. WOW, you would hope and think they would be a ilttle smarter and more educated about how to reform this.

Nbristow01
Nbristow01

I do not smoke pot or do I condone its use...but how on earth can the feds arrest people for doing what is legal in their state????? This is just crazy, we are turning virtaully socialist in some ways and it seems almost a dictatorship in others. So what point is even having state laws now??? Lets just erase all the states and live under federal law. Oh wait...that won't work because then the feds would have to deal with legal citizens directly about the illegal immigration issues. Then they could not use the states as excuses.

What has happened to our country. We have gone from a proud nation to a corrupt war hungy nation with people living in third world conditions. The pot thing is just a symptom to a much deeper issue.

Preacher8770
Preacher8770

this is sooo stupid! if we taxed the billions spent on weed. we wouldnt have a deficit.HELLO

Missivy16
Missivy16

Medical marijuana sucks anyway. Get that sh*t outta here.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Hypocrite. He's smokin' SOMETHING.

Josh T
Josh T

Phew thank goodness! I was afraid we were making progress on getting rid of the Black Market and shutting the drug dealers down. Business as usual in the USA and the Mexican Cartels celebrate this exciting news!

JWKARAOKEMAN
JWKARAOKEMAN

214 MILL PPL USE THE STUFF AND oBAMA CAN'T FIND A WAY TO GET US OUT OF DEBT? AND IF WE GREW IT WE WOULDN'T HAVE THIS PROBLEM WITH MEXICO TRYING TO GET THEIR CRAP OVER HERE!

Montemalone
Montemalone

You neglected to mention the deep political donating pockets of Pharma.

And law enforcement has multiple incentives to go after MJ. The money! All those confiscations go right back into the budget. Plus the fact there's no guns involved. Why isn't the Cali AG going after the gangs and cartels? They have weapons and they use them. Much easier to confiscate money and property from people just doing a job and others just using a 100% organic and natural product.

boffo!
boffo!

oh, but they can...

boffo!
boffo!

not so much, really...

boffo!
boffo!

yeah, right. good one...

boffo!
boffo!

oh yeah? then how do you explain pink floyd, then?

David
David

As of now I have absolutely NO ONE TO VOTE FOR! I may still vote a Dem ticket, only to vote AGAINST Republican tyranny. I am definately looking into all the Libertarian candidates.

Umberto
Umberto

Prohibition didn't work the first time, and it will never work.

Umberto
Umberto

Not much difference between Obama and Romney at this point.

Merlin
Merlin

the first thing that jerk did when he got in office was raise luxury taxes.Example cigarettes went $2 a pack among other things!Now he wants to stop a business that could beneficial to some people.I ask you how many laws has he broken? State rights are supposed separate from the federal government!

Debbie Annette Cockerham
Debbie Annette Cockerham

i voted for obama.he promised to leave med marijuana alone,to close gitmo,etc.he has kept none of his pledges.he is just a republican pretending to be a democrat.he has lost my vote due to the medical marijuana issue.sure wish some dems would run against him!!i am voting for ron paul,even if its a write in vote,but would rather have someone that cares about the lower and middle class.and someone that has compassion as well.

John
John

anybody who uses pot is wierd anyway we should just execute all the pot heads and pot growers it would save us a lot of money as a country

cdolson
cdolson

US attorneys answer to the Department of Justice. How then could this not be something the Obama administration is in charge of?

Zpttu
Zpttu

I think this is akin to " don't create laws that you can't or ont enforce" only by coming to light on he ridiculous federal laws in place will America force the issue. The states vs fed is bull. A republican would preach states right then shut down every state that enacted any mm legislation. Decrimilization is the on,y way and forcing the country to see how unjust and un americanh archaic marijuana laws which were derived from racism in post slavery america will hopefully force the public conservative Christian right who are the greatest foes. Signed conservative democrat Texan

cdolson
cdolson

Your post is nonsensicle and provides no factual rebuttal to any of the factual, provable points raised in this article.

Obama is an enemy of state's rights, as this article proves and has completely betrayed his supporters. He sees nothing for individual or state liberty and everything for total government control and individual dependence and servitude to it.

Hail to the hypocrite-in-chief. Support for him is more like religion and less like politics every day in this country.

Guest
Guest

Your lack of education is sickening... kill yourself.

Nrok311nin
Nrok311nin

No wonder you were named John. Boring mfr

Hari Om
Hari Om

Wow, very thoughtful and inspiring. It's like big time wrestling in the comment area

Umberto
Umberto

So you'd be OK with murdering millions of people? Many of whom have children? Who is going to pull the trigger? You? I bet you'd like that.

Serial Killer
Serial Killer

your an idiot. do you realize how much profit is in medical marijuana and if they taxed it? do your research before you post another retarded comment.

cdolson
cdolson

And which branch of the government do you think the Department of Justice falls under? It is a branch of the executive my friend and answers directly to Pres. Obama.

 
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