Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana Muddle

Obama's new policy sounds good, but it may not make much difference

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During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly promised to stop federal interference with state medical marijuana laws. In October the Justice Department seemed to deliver on that promise with a memo telling U.S. attorneys to avoid prosecuting people who use or provide medical marijuana in compliance with state law.

The new policy sounds a lot better than the Bush administration's refusal to tolerate any deviation from federal law in this area. But it may not make much difference in practice.

While campaigning in New Hampshire in 2007, Obama said "prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users" is "really not a good use of Justice Department resources." In a March 2008 interview with Oregon's Mail Tribune, he said, "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue." Two months later, when another Oregon paper, Willamette Week, asked Obama whether he would stop Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) "raids on Oregon medical marijuana growers," he replied, "I would, because I think our federal agents have better things to do."

Critics of the drug war (and consistent advocates of federalism) were therefore disappointed that the DEA's raids continued after Obama took office. There were five in January and February, all in California, even as the White House affirmed that "federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws."

The mixed signals continued. "The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law," Attorney General Eric Holder declared in March. Less than a week later, the DEA raided a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco, reportedly because of irregularities associated with the collection of state sales tax (as opposed to violations of state drug laws).

In light of Holder's announcement, a federal judge in Los Angeles delayed the sentencing of Morro Bay dispensary operator Charles Lynch, only to be told by the Justice Department that the case against Lynch was consistent with the new policy. In August the DEA arrested a medical marijuana patient and grower in Upper Lake, California. The DEA also has continued to participate in raids initiated by local officials, hitting two Los Angeles dispensaries in August and 14 San Diego dispensaries in September.

The October memo, which White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said merely describes what "has been administration policy since the beginning of this administration," helps explain these apparent inconsistencies. It tells federal prosecutors in the 13 states that recognize cannabis as a medicine they "should not focus federal resources…on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."

In California especially, that phrasing leaves a lot of wiggle room for federal meddling. A 2008 decision by the California Supreme Court rejected the idea that medical marijuana suppliers are legal as long as their customers designate them as "primary caregivers." Patients who are not up to growing marijuana on their own can still organize as "collectives" or "cooperatives," but local officials disagree with state officials and each other about what that means.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, for example, maintains that state law does not permit over-the-counter sales, which would make virtually all of the 800 or so medical marijuana dispensaries in L.A. illegal. Cooley's position conflicts with the views of more cannabis-tolerant officials in places such as Oakland and San Francisco. It also contradicts guidelines issued in 2008 by California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who says patient collectives may charge for marijuana as long as they do not take in more revenue than is necessary to cover their overhead and operating expenses. Until the law is clarified by the courts or the legislature, the federal government will have plenty of opportunities to continue interfering with the distribution of medical marijuana.

Jacob Sullum (jsullum@reason.com) is a senior editor at reason.

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  1. Good morning everybody!

    Obligatory comment: That photo of Obama is racist.

    1. I thought it was Richard Pryor.

      1. Alt text isn’t showing up for me. Maybe Chrome is racist too?

        1. There is no alt text, unless Firefox is also a honky.

      2. I thought it was O.J.

        – Is that really Obama smoking a doob?

        1. OJ? You thought OJ? Pryor is believable, but OJ?

  2. Doobie telling me how you really feel.

  3. “That dork in a narc hat lied to me about drugs.”

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    1. Well, as long as the price is undeniable…

    2. Did you pay Reason Magazine for your ad? Or are you just another piece of spam shit?

  5. Thank you, susan! I’ll do that.

  6. What’s an “undeniable price”?

    1. I don’t know, but I think it’s some sort of Platonic truth.

    2. The one set by the buyer so the sale is complete?

      Exception: when you buy a sail.

  7. I suspect an “undeniable” price involves a transaction which cannot be removed from your credit card, no matter how hard you try.

  8. In Other News:

    The Faith-Healer-in-Chief’s motorcade rushed home from the golf course at top speed, so he could kiss the booboo of a young family friend.

    As far as we now know, all members of the motorcycle escort survived the trip.

  9. What a putz. Not surprising, but what a putz.

  10. I hate Got’cha Politics?, but Obama really didn’t need the “Family friend hurt while surfing on vacation in Hawaii” headline right now.

    1. Yes He did. He ordained it you heathen!

  11. Maybe the Secret service thought it was the first wave of an organized terrorist attack, and were falling back to their fortified secure base of operations.

  12. If that kid got hurt at Fidel Castro’s house, he’d get free health care.

    1. And would be instantly fully literate.

  13. The medical marijuana “policy change” was one of the first examples of the Obama administration’s governance-by-press-release.

    I believe you will find that many H&R commenters (ahem) predicted that it would not result in any real change in what really happens in the real world. A place that is apparently a foreign country to the Obama administration.

    1. The administration is selling the new policy, such as it is, by saying the fed gov doesn’t have the resources to go after MM patients. In other words, once the feds are flush with cash again the sole intellectual column supporting the policy will crumble. I wrote about this here.

      1. Will you please read the actual directive, posted at the USDOJ website (I do not have the link handy). It does not tell “U.S. attorneys to avoid prosecuting people who use or provide medical marijuana in compliance with state law.” It tells the attorneys they should not make a priority of prosecuting those who are in compliance with what the federal government deems to be full compliance with state law, listing several criteria that have nothing to do with state med marijuana laws, including whether the user has ‘excess amounts of cash’ on hand. It also allows the prosecution of those in full compliance when “federal interests’ are at stake. This is the very sort of doubletalk that BHO excels in.

  14. Sad, no doubt Obama believes in the decriminalization of cannabis, but lacks the jock to do anything about it. When will the Democratic or Republican parties realize that a majority of Americans want Drug War reforms and legalization/regulation of marijuana? Oh well, the citizens of California will legalize in 2010 and the DEA empire will SLOWLY begin to crumble…

    1. He was for decrim before he was against it.

      1. New at this let’s try again.

        for

        against

          1. Ok third times a charm.

            for
            against

            1. Patting self on back.

  15. Sad, no doubt Obama believes in the decriminalization of cannabis,

    Obama believes in the advancement and glorification of Obama. Any other beliefs are held only to the extent they contribute to this goal.

  16. Obama lied and primary care givers cried.

  17. Whatchoo taukin bout Willis?

  18. It’s time for the DEA to lay of legitimate pain mngmnt doctors. Medical marijuana is a minor thing compared to the hell the DEA puts millions of chronic pain patients through via their doctors. And this is over perfectly legal medication. Call of the dogs already. We are hurting and there is help available but for the DEA Gestapo tactics.

  19. Sure, no Federal prosecution for law abiding citizens with an MMJ card…but how long before they throw a heavy tax and regulate the medicinal use of marijuana?

  20. It’s high time to allow the free market to follow it’s course and for liberty to reign against repressive government control over our private lives: DECRIMINALIZE MARIJUANA

  21. I really wish everyone could just come to some common ground and figure out this confusion

  22. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

  23. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…

  24. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books.

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