Drug War

Read My Tea Leaves

The federal crackdown on medical marijuana shows Obama has no respect for state law.


In their October 7 press release announcing "coordinated enforcement actions" against medical marijuana dispensaries, California's four U.S. attorneys use the adjective commercial to describe their targets eight times and refer to profit nine times, not counting two mentions of money and one of moneymaking. You might surmise from these clues that nonprofit organizations supplying marijuana to authorized patients need not worry about raids, forfeiture, and prosecution—but only if you are unfamiliar with the Obama administration's weaselly ways.

Barack Obama promised a more tolerant approach to medical marijuana, saying he would not "circumvent state laws on this issue." Instead he has delivered a crackdown more aggressive than anything seen under George W. Bush, featuring more-frequent raids, threats to landlords and banks, and ruinous IRS audits. Although his underlings occasionally pretend they are respecting state law, they clearly have no intention of doing so.

California's Medical Marijuana Program Act, a 2003 law that supplements the Compassionate Use Act approved by voters in 1996, exempts qualified patients and their "primary caregivers" from state penalties for growing, possessing, or distributing cannabis but does not cover distribution "for profit." When he was California's attorney general, Gov. Jerry Brown read this law, which allows patients and caregivers to grow marijuana "collectively or cooperatively," as permitting fees to "cover overhead costs and operating expenses"—i.e., nonprofit sales.

Last week André Birotte Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, emphasized that for-profit distribution "is not what the California voters intended or authorized" and "is illegal under California law," statements that seemed consistent with an October 2009 Justice Department memo announcing a policy of prosecutorial forbearance for medical marijuana providers who comply with state law. Yet Birotte immediately cast doubt on his respect for the will of California's voters by declaring that "we have yet to find a single instance in which a marijuana store was able to prove that it was a not-for-profit organization."

Why not let California officials enforce California law? If dispensaries do not qualify for the medical exemption, their operators can be prosecuted in state court.

The Justice Department disdains such deference. Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, said she will close down dispensaries that violate a federal ban on drug sales within 1,000 feet of "schools, parks, and other areas where children are present," whether or not they comply with state law. She and her colleagues also claimed they were responding to nuisance complaints and violations of municipal ordinances, which is the job of local law enforcement agencies.

Haag has made it clear that federal prosecutors are determined to override state and local decisions. "We will enforce the [Controlled Substances Act] vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana," she wrote in a February letter to Oakland City Attorney John Russo, "even if such activities are permitted under state law."

So enough with the pretenses. The Justice Department's current position is that the tolerance promised by the president applies only to patients, which makes Obama's policy indistinguishable from his predecessor's, which in turn did not represent any restraint at all, since the federal government generally does not bother with cases involving small amounts of drugs, regardless of who is using them or for what purpose.

"The legalization advocates misread the tea leaves," says Kevin Sabet, who served until recently as senior policy adviser to drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. "They were very excited about their prospects, and they are disappointed."

The administration's assurances were considerably more explicit than tea leaves. Attorney General Eric Holder, for example, said "the policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law," as opposed to "organizations that are [distributing marijuana] in a way that is consistent with state law." But Sabet is probably right about one thing: "Until federal law changes," he says, "I don't think we should expect to see major changes in medical marijuana policy."

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. The agricultural city-State (civilization) is externally invasive and internally repressive.

    But it’s the best thing in life anyway, cuz a libertarian told me so.

    1. Free medical weed would have saved me!

      Free Weed!

      1. ** holds up iWhatever **

        You can put your weed in there!

    2. If only we could go back to 30% infant mortality and unpunished rape we’d be happy.

      1. Oh, you’re a Progressive? The agricultural city-State (civilization) has brought all good things?

        Want to move to Cuba? Their infant mortality rate — your standard for judging — is less than the USA’s, and they do it on a few hundred dollars per year per capita health care expenditure, compared to several thousand here in the US.

        ? Better care.
        ? Less cost.
        ? Cuba.

        Libertarian Progressive set the standard.

        1. Note to people who argue with this guy about the city state: this should confirm what you should already know, this guy is a liberal troll who thinks he’s very clever with his libertarians=hypocrits because we live in civilization. Don’t feed the troll.

        2. It’s nice to know that when challenged, Libertarians change their anti-State story and kowtow to the agricultural city-State with us Progressives.

          No wonder libertarians don’t get elected – they don’t even believe their own anti-State tripe.

          1. No wonder libertarians don’t get elected – they don’t even believe their own anti-State tripe.

            maybe it’s because libertarians are not anti-state; they are anti overly large and increasingly intrusive state, something liberals never oppose. Libertarians tend to not get elected because too many people love their govt goodies and a libertarian office holder would cut the flow of goodies. Govts that rob Peter to pay Paul can always count on Paul’s support.

        3. Don’t forget 110% literacy and fairness.

          1. Literacy?

            Cuba #2
            USA #45

            Thanks, my fellow libertarian progressive. for setting the proper standards for political discourse.

            1. The fact that you believe that is not surprising.

        4. Good to know you’ve been listening to us, comrade.

      2. Obviously, “step on dicksun” has never studied rape statistics in the nation with a particularly capitalist rape culture.

        USA: 28.6 rapes per 100,000
        Uganda: 4.8 per 100,000
        Kenya: 1.9 per 100,000
        Turkey: 1.4 per 100,000
        Russia: 4.4 per 100,000

        1. come out of the faculty lounge and stop with the “capitalist rape culture” bullshit. On the other hand, you could move to Uganda, Kenya, or Russia, something I never hear socialists, feminists, or progressives advocating. It’s easier to cherry-pick numbers that fit an agenda than it is to present a hypothesis and watch it crack under the weight of the evidence.

          Has it ever struck you that one reason for the higher rape stat is that our laws encourage victims to report being assaulted? Lots of rapists in jail, too, which would indicate the culture does think highly of the act. In Uganda, women are killed for being in the wrong tribe; only a twisted form of feminism sees that as some sort of positive.

        2. Hey, babe, ever wonder if reporting rape is an issue in less developed countries? Or maybe, you know, they don’t keep very accurate records? No? Try Googling “uganda rape.”

          Next time your anthro prof spews some statistics, try thinking about them. I know its super hard, but he might like it.

        3. Sweden: 53.2 rapes per 100,000

  2. “Barack Obama promised a more tolerant approach to medical marijuana”

    The funniest line from “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” was when Spock says “There is an old Vulcan proverb: only Nixon could go to China” The point was that Nixon could “get away” with the action taken because it went counter to his usual reputation. I believe there may be something similar going on here. Obama is given more leeway in these matters than Bush, for example, would have been given precisely because it goes counter to his usual reputation. “Well, if EVEN Obama things this is a good idea ….”

    1. Because of his anti-commie cred, Nixon could avoid any accusations that he was a closeted commie. Because of his liberal cred, ‘only Clinton could reform welfare’. Imagine the shitstorm if McGovern went to China or either Bush had implemented welfare reform.

      1. Exactly. I also think that if McCain had been elected instead of Obama he would not have gotten away with the same actions that Obama took regarding Libya.

        1. He probably would have gotten away with it, but it certainly would have received a lot more scrutiny.

          The disturbing thing about all of this is that a politician has to be the opposite of what they claim to be to get a pass on things. Apparently we’ll need a an-cap or libertarian posing as a communist to get elected if we ever want freedom.

          1. BP, I actually think you may be on to something there…

            1. Yes, quite.

              1. In fact, just this morning I happened upon an article about this guy. ‘Twould be nice to have a spiritual successor in libertarian poilitics.

                1. Link utterly botched. Anyway, Joan Pujol Garcia.

                  1. One more shot: here

                    1. There’s a good comic – Larry Leathercoat, Libertarian double agent.

            2. Let me be clear.

              I promise to unveil the rest of my scheme after being re-elected.

    2. Good point. I’m wondering if this is in actuality a move to the middle (consider having extreme left and extreme right positions will look to some as compromise)….

      1. He’s not going to move to the middle. His election team is scared to death of becoming Clinton 2.0. I’m betting on the woe is me victim card for 2012 where he plays the poor victim of Congress and admits some sort of failure to get his true message across to the masses. I don’t see them taking any other path to try and regain the middle ground they lost with all the policies they’ve pushed that ostracized the independents. Plus all he has to do is be a little better than the GOP candidate and my dog qualifies for that ATM.

        1. admits some sort of failure to get his true message across to the masses

          IIRC, that’s been a ploy all along.

        2. His fear of becoming Clinton 2.0 is creating a Carter 0.5.

  3. Barack Obama promised … he would not “circumvent state laws on this issue.”

    It depends on what the definition of “circumvent” is.

    1. Damn. We keep electing lawyers.

      1. The classroom lawyer is the worst kind of lawyer.

        1. Let me be clear.

          Suki, do you have something you’d like to share with the rest of the class?

          1. “People called Obama they go to the house!”

            1. “Let’s Move!”

  4. Yep. He was going to get our kids home from Iraq, close Gitmo, and railed against the abuses of state brought forth by the Patriotic Act…. which he and his party extended without modification.

    Yet voters…. seem to still be firmly stuck in them same old arguments “well yeah, he didn’t do what we thought, bu at least he’s not on that other team…. the evil ones.”

    We’ll see of course in 13 months or so, but there doesn’t seem to be any obvious trends to show a growing change among enough voters to make any substantial difference.

    I hope to be proven wrong this.

    1. Hey. The queers can now fight and die in our endless wars agianst the terrorists.

      So BarryO has that going for him – Dead Queers.

      1. Maybe a new call for conscription is just around the corner, for fairness.

    2. dear god, another 13months of election bullshit. I picked the wrong year to quit drinking.

  5. Can anyone name one campaign pledge this administration has actually kept? This isn’t sarcasm, btw, I’m genuinely curious.

    1. There’s 75% more hope, and a whole metric fuck ton of change.

    2. Obama promised to increase troop strength in Afghanistan. He kept that one.

      1. And more soldiers and marines have died during the two years of the surge than in the previous eight. Obama told the Taliban that the US would draw down in two years, and even refused to meet with his own commander. Can anyone explain this ‘strategy’ to me?

        1. I didn’t say it was good, just that he kept a promise he’d made.

      1. This is my favorite, his appeasement of the Zeitgeist crowd.

        1. This is mine. Fixin’ the tax code. 8-(

        2. That is incredible. Like there are not people out there looking to invest in new manufacturing techniques.

          1. But they are not doing it scientifically, for the good of all, like the great Maobama. They are just doing it for greed. No market is as bright as the Maobamatron hive.

  6. GOLD
    ol’ joe from lol explains thusly, two years ago:

    Congratulations to Barack Obama for ceasing the Bush administration’s policy of sending the feds to bust medical pot sellers who operate legally under California’s state law! Whether you are willing to recognize that this is an advance, and whether you are willing to recognize that it is exactly the advance Obama promised, is the test of whether honesty, or the emotional urge to proclaim yourself right, is guiding your commentary on this matter.

    No, they don’t run around looking to enforce them.

    They take part in joint-task-force arrests of people who violate STATE laws when asked to do so by the STATE OF CALIFORNIA.

    Before Obama and Holder, they were busting pot clinics even when they complied with STATE laws, and now they’re not.

    So, change the subject, because really, the most important thing here is to say mean things about Barack Obama. Fuck the patients. So the feds aren’t trying to shut down med pot clinics anymore ? hey, look over there!

    On a more serious note, joe claims that this is all really caused by the local cops using “joint task force” as fig leaf, of sorts. So, when federales get involved, it’s really at the urging of the locals, so it’s kinda out of Barack’s hands, if you really think about it. Or, read it however you like.

    joe: If California authorities weren’t pushing investigations and busts at these clinics, they wouldn’t be happening. Look at what the DA and City Council are up to.

    dr.t:….but surely you don’t think that federal members of joint task forces are purely passive participants. They both have reasons for wanting to participate in these enforcement actions. On paper it may be that the call is ultimately in local hands, but organizational flow charts don’t always tell the full story when people are working together and have various motivations.

    joe: No, just the opposite. On paper, the DEA can rampage through Oakland whether the local police like it or not. In practice, the feds get involved in local drug busts that don’t involved cross-border trafficking when the locals want them to.

    1. “joint task force”

    2. Oh, Joe…

      1. “Joint Task Force” sounds pretty federal as a phrase. Perhaps it is the military organizations it evokes.

        1. Joint Task forces are federal creatures. They are created by the feds in order to properly coordinate federal and local efforts. The feds cannot order the locals to do anything, but they have veto power over what the JTT works on. So anything done by a joint task force is necessarily driven by the feds.

          Needless to say Joe was and is a fucking idiot.

          1. ok. but I guess there is a deeper question – are California attys and law enforcement urging or coordinating these prosecutions, because cops just like to bust stuff, but can’t because the clinics are compliant?

            I mean, I don’t think there’s a JTF anywhere in these latest instances. It’s just the feds cracking down when they’ve determined that the clinics are out of compliance with CA law. OR am I misreading?

            1. If the feds are cracking down, the feds are cracking down. The feds don’t do anything they don’t want to do. And they don’t go and do the bidding of state and locals. It is really that simple. If a DEA agent is there, he or she is there because the feds have decided they want them to be there, period.

            2. Not quite; it’s more the feds deciding that state law is irrelevant if it involves trafficking in controlled substances. They don’t care whether the dispensaries or growers are compliant with Prop 215.

              To answer your first question, most likely yes. The medical pot laws in California are (deliberately?) vague enough that local law enforcement has been harassing the industry long before the feds stepped in.

    3. actually, I would like to hear dunphy’s take on this fed/local JTF dynamic. please refrain from calling him a pig for a few moments…

      1. I work with JTFs. See above. They are federal entities.

    4. I missed the Golden Age of reason by *that* much 🙁

      1. No you didn’t. Joe was an annoying twat. I miss Thoreau and even Gaius Marius who was nuts but at least polite and entertaining. But Joe was just an asshole. Now is better. The idiots are so mindless and stupid, like White Indian, they are easy to ignore.

        1. But I never giggle more than when you old timers quote the sacred scrolls of the Joe era!

  7. It’s 9AM. Do you know where your Morning Links are?

    1. I hope they’re nowhere near the Free Candy van.

      1. I think you mean Lotion Man van.

    2. Either using heroin or kidnapped, I presume.

  8. Why would President Obama have any respect for state law? President Obama thinks that being President means he’s the King and can do anything.

    1. Obama’s is a presidency that just can’t end fast enough.

  9. What the hell is going on here? We are talking about marijuana, right? Stop the hypocrisy, and watch Prohibition on PBS.

    1. Even Ken Burns doesn’t get the hypocricy. He says it might be ok to legalize marijuana, but not the harder drugs. Statist idiot.

    2. I tuned into that show for 2 minutes. What I saw were people talking about how Prohibition might have worked if the Feds had just had more money for enforcement. Then I switche dto teh other PBS channel and watched America’s Test Kitchen and calmed down.

  10. whether *OR* not:

    “Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, said she will close down dispensaries that violate a federal ban on drug sales within 1,000 feet of “schools, parks, and other areas where children are present,” whether not they comply with state law.”

  11. Meanwhile Holder is running guns to the Mexican drug cartels, and Obama is still a fraud, forger, identity thief, and most probably an illegal alien.

    1. You had me up to “Obama is…”. I’m not a supporter by any means, but there is plenty of stuff he has and hasn’t done as President to crucify him for without bringing any kind of “illegal alien” silliness into it.

  12. Although his underlings occasionally pretend they are respecting state law, they clearly have no intention of doing so.

    Because this is a Ron Baily post, I blame global warming.

  13. Here’s a way to get back at the feds: Get the med mj users to switch to tobacco.

    1. Save this plan until we get Federal Single Payer Medical Coverage (FSPMC).

  14. My theory: California is in the bag for Obama in 2012. regardless of what he does. So he can crack down on Californians to suck up to his right wing donors; and it won’t cost him California’s electoral vote.

  15. OK, I am not totally into this subject, but one thing that bothers me a little at Reason is how they hook BO into things as quickly as they can. I realize news is news, and this is not a libertarian political party-piece, per se, but let’s ignore who’s in the white house for the moment to talk about _why_ this is something to get bothered about or not. The Barack Obama tactic just detracts.

    1. It seems to me that this is an Executive Branch issue, and “hooking into” it the President, the top executive, is reasonable.

  16. Of course Team Obama won’t let states set their own marijuana policies… that would involve the Tenth Amendment, and Team Obama hates individual state governments, as they interfere with central-planning dogma.

  17. I’ve got some ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great blog and I look forward to seeing it improve over time.

  18. You could unintentionally say something that may come back and bite you,” says McKee. Having an HR person helping can prevent you from saying too much, or too little.

  19. It’s not “if” but “when” litigation happens to stick it to the boss for firing people for stupid reasons just to pay cheaper wages.

  20. Oh, this is too true. We ignore something which could be helping people and put disabled people in jail…

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