You Can't Say That on TV: U.S. Attorney Promises to Target Medical Marijuana Advertising


The Obama administration isn't just cracking down on individuals and organizations that sell medical marijuana. It's now threatening to go after publishers and broadcasters that run ads for pot dispensaries in a state where medical marijuana is legal. 

Federal prosecutors are preparing to target newspapers, radio stations and other media outlets that advertise medical marijuana dispensaries in California, another escalation in the Obama administration's newly invigorated war against the state's pot industry.

This month, U.S. attorneys representing four districts in California announced that the government would single out landlords and property owners who rent buildings or land where dispensaries sell or cultivators grow marijuana. Now, newspapers and other media outlets could be next.

U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy, whose district includes Imperial and San Diego counties, said marijuana advertising is the next area she's "going to be moving onto as part of the enforcement efforts in Southern California." Duffy said she could not speak for the three other U.S. attorneys covering the state, but noted their efforts have been coordinated so far.

"I'm not just seeing print advertising," Duffy said in an interview with California Watch and KQED. "I'm actually hearing radio and seeing TV advertising. It's gone mainstream. Not only is it inappropriate – one has to wonder what kind of message we're sending to our children – it's against the law."

Of course, she means that it's against federal law. California voters approved the legalization of medical marijuana in 1996. The difference ought to matter; in 2008, President Obama promised that when it came to medical marijuana, he wouldn't interfere with local legalization. "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue," he said. But as Senior Editor Jacob Sullum noted this morning, four U.S. attorneys in California announced last week that they would be stepping up enforcement against the state's medical pot distributors. 

Duffy has apparently taken that as a license to go after publishers as well:

Duffy said she believes the law gives her the right to prosecute newspaper publishers or TV station owners. 

"If I own a newspaper … or I own a TV station, and I'm going to take in your money to place these ads, I'm the person who is placing these ads," Duffy said. "I am willing to read (the law) expansively and if a court wants to more narrowly define it, that would be up to the court."

Why the sudden burst of enforcement action? Has someone been hurt by the advertising, or by the dispensaries that buy ad space? Later in the article, Duffy allows that the law that legalized medical marijuana had "good intentions." But those good intensions, she tells California Watch, "have almost completely been taken over by people who are trying to use that permission law to get rich, to distribute marijuana and traffic drugs to people who aren't sick, to our youth and to people who are using drugs on a recreational basis." As Sullum noted, the focus on profit would seem to suggest that the recent crackdown won't apply to the state's many non-profit dispensaries. But that seems unlikely (at best) since although many of the state's pot clubs claim nonprofit status, federal prosecutors, according to the San Jose Mercury News, have "disputed that assertion, leaving unclear which outfits they might consider legitimate." What's most telling about Duffy's laundry list of non-horrors, though, is that altough she decries pot-seller profits and sales to recreational users, she doesn't even attempt to describe any actual harm caused by either. Perhaps that's because there is none. 

Read Jacob Sullum's October 2011 cover story on how President Obama turned out to be just another drug warrior