Weed & Politics: Digging Through the Double Talk


Shortly after President Obama took office, Department of Justice Deputy Attorney General David Ogden sent an email to various law enforcement offices in each state with existing medical marijuana legislation. The “Ogden” memo outlined the new Administration’s plan to respect state medical marijuana laws, withholding the right to prosecute for-profit operations, and plans to overhaul DEA policy for raiding medical marijuana facilities. It appeared as though President Obama truly would take a “practical approach” to medical marijuana, just as he’d told members of the Marijuana Policy Project during an interview on the campaign trail in 2008. In the wake of the memo, Arizona, New Jersey, Delaware, and the District of Columbia all approved medical marijuana programs. Patients and medical marijuana advocates were convinced that the Obama Administration was truly the beginning of a new day.

Then, in June 2011, everything changed. A new memo, written by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, outlined the Department of Justice’s “ commitment to the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act in all States” and made clear that the Ogden memo was meant as little more than a guide on how local agencies should prioritize use of resources. It was not, as President Obama said in a recent Rolling Stone interview, the agency’s intention to “give carte blanche to large-scale producers” and dispensary owners. “I can’t nullify congressional law,” said the President, continuing, “I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, ‘Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books.’”

With the new memo, DEA raids not only resumed, but intensified. During the eight years that President Bush was in office, approximately 200 raids took place. More than 100 had occurred by the midway point of President Obama’s first term, and the pace was increasing. Even the world-famous Oaksterdam University, considered a bastion of regulatory compliance by many in the community, was raided by the DEA earlier this month. But California isn’t the only state feeling the heat. The DEA closed more than 10 Washington dispensaries on a single November day last year, and raided more than 20 raids in Montana as well. But raids aren’t the only method being used to close down medical marijuana-related businesses anymore.

Attorney generals across the country are now using the mere threat of legal action to pressure
dispensaries into closing. Twenty-five Colorado dispensaries closed during a single week in March after being informed that they were not fully compliant with industry regulations. Similar letters were reportedly delivered in Hawaii and New Jersey, though Governor Chris Christie has denied the letter’s allegations that state employees could face prosecution for their involvement in the medical marijuana industry. In fact, this writer’s local dispensary recently ceased operations after receiving a similar legal threat from attorney general John Walsh’s office for operating within 1000 feet of a school. Additionally, more than 200 dispensaries in California have closed after receiving similar legal threats from the office of attorney general Kamala D. Harris. So how can all this be happening if the President promised us a practical approach?

While many would like the President to take a more proactive approach with medical marijuana, truth be told, there isn’t much he can do. As he mentioned in his Rolling Stone interview, while the President can certainly say that medical marijuana shouldn’t be a priority, he cannot nullify the Controlled Substances Act. What he can do, and has done, is ask that law enforcement prioritize resource allocation in a way that, theoretically, ends the prosecution of law-abiding patients. Now, through communication with elected officials — and by replacing the ones who won’t get onboard — it’s time for medical marijuana advocates to finish what they started.

Voters must encourage their representatives, at the city, state, and federal levels, to support pro-medical marijuana legislation. If you live in a state where the attorney general is an elected official, contact yours and let him know that you do not support the crackdown on medical marijuana. Don’t know who your elected officials are, or how to get in touch with them? Groups like Common Cause offer great tools to help find the information you need, while others like Project Vote Smart help you stay on top of upcoming elections with information on the candidates and issues being voted on. And, of course, you can keep up with all cannabis-related political news here at Marijuana.com.

Most importantly, in the age of Super-PACs, it’s important to donate time and/or money to the cause. Advocacy groups like NORML and the MPP can be powerful tools when dealing with Congress and may represent one of pro-reform voters’ best hopes of ending the Drug Enforcement Agency’s war on medical marijuana.

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