Drug Policy

Decriminalize, Double Seizures, Whatever

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Here is another pin in the bedraggled balloon of hope that Barack Obama would de-escalate the war on drugs:

The total amount of marijuana seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration nearly doubled from 1,539 metric tons in fiscal 2008 to 2,980 metric tons last year.

The numbers were disclosed as part of the DEA's budget request for fiscal 2011.

To recap: The guy who called the war on drugs "an utter failure" and supported marijuana decriminalization when he was running for the Senate, and who promised to call off the DEA's medical marijuana raids when he was running for president, has sought an increase in funding for that utter failure, ridiculed the very notion of marijuana decriminalization, presided over a doubling in marijuana seizures, nominated a hard-line Bush administration holdover to head the DEA, and continued to let the DEA raid medical marijuana dispensaries and grow operations without regard to whether they are following state law, despite a written Justice Department policy to the contrary.

Speaking of which, Jeffrey Sweetin, the DEA official in Denver who declared that he plans to defy that policy by continuing to bust medical marijuana suppliers for violating federal law, no matter what state law says, last week amended his comments a bit, telling Westword:

We are not declaring war on dispensaries. If we were declaring war on dispensaries, they would not be hard to find. You can't swing a dead cat around here without hitting thirty of them….I think the people who claim to represent marijuana growers in this state are trying to create this fear, and I think that's sad.

Yet it was Sweetin who told the Denver Post a few weeks ago:

It's still a violation of federal law. It's not medicine. We're still going to continue to investigate and arrest people….

Technically, every dispensary in the state is in blatant violation of federal law. The time is coming when we go into a dispensary, we find out what their profit is, we seize the building and we arrest everybody. They're violating federal law; they're at risk of arrest and imprisonment.

Sweetin now claims Chris Bartkowicz, the Colorado medical marijuana grower the DEA arrested on February 12, was not supplying enough patients to justify the 150 plants that Sweetin says he was growing. But while the general limit under state law is six plants and two ounces of marijuana per patient, the law also says that "for quantities of marijuana in excess of these amounts, a patient or his or her primary care-giver may raise as an affirmative defense to charges of violation of state law that such greater amounts were medically necessary to address the patient's debilitating medical condition." In other words, the legality of Bartkowicz's operation is an issue for Colorado's courts to decide, but the DEA is unilaterally and presumptively branding him a criminal, based on its own allegations of fact and its own reading of state law. As I've argued, when the federal government reserves the right to interpret and apply state medical marijuana laws, the promise to respect state decisions in this area does not mean much. Furthermore, Sweetin still has not retreated from his assertion that, contrary to the official policy of the Justice Department (which oversees the DEA), a violation of federal law is sufficient reason to raid medical marijuana suppliers.