Drug Warrior Defends Dispensary Crackdown


An anti-drug activist as a teenager growing up in Anaheim, California, Kevin Sabet went on to work at the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Sabet, who has a Ph.D. in social policy from Oxford University, served until recently as drug czar Gil Kerlikowske's senior adviser. On October 7, the day that California's four U.S. attorneys announced "coordinated enforcement actions" against medical marijuana dispensaries, Senior Editor Jacob Sullum interviewed Sabet about President Barack Obama's promise that "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue." This is an edited transcript. 

Q: What is Obama's policy regarding medical marijuana?

A: It's clearly stated in the [memo issued by Deputy Attorney General James Cole in June] that it's not a good use of prosecutorial resources to go after individual patients. But in terms of making a lot of cash on this, [suppliers] are doing so knowing that it violates federal law, and it's up to the U.S. attorneys to decide what to do.

Q: You may be the only person I've talked to about this who thinks the Cole memo is clear.

A: The issue with the Cole memo and the [memo issued by Cole's predecessor, David Ogden, in October 2009] is that people read into that what they wanted. The media reports made it sound like it was going to be a free-for-all. Legalization groups got that idea too. If you look at the number of dispensaries, it increases after [the Ogden memo].

Q: But the Ogden memo did indicate that prosecutorial forbearance would apply to suppliers who comply with state law as well as patients, which is consistent with what Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have said. 

A: The Department of Justice gave itself some wiggle room. Over the last two years, as we've seen the explosion of medical marijuana dispensaries, the administration is realizing that these aren't good for communities, that this doesn't send the right message in a time when marijuana use is increasing, that we need to be even clearer. I think that's why you saw the Cole memo. The policies change when the facts on the ground change.

Q: The Justice Department's current position seems to be that the promises of tolerance from Obama and Holder applied only to patients. Correct?

A: That's probably a fair assessment.

Q: But Holder explicitly gave assurances concerning dispensaries that comply with state law.

A: You have to look at specifically what's happening in certain states and make an assessment. Based on what's happening in California, with people making millions of dollars…I think the Department of Justice is realizing that medical marijuana is a sad joke in California. I don't think these actions should be that surprising to anybody.

Q: Will the Obama administration distinguish between dispensaries in California, where the rules are fuzzy, and dispensaries in states that explicitly license and regulate them?

A: I have no idea what they're going to do. Marijuana is going to remain a Schedule I drug in this administration, and prosecutors will continue to use their discretion.

Q: Didn't Obama signal that he would take a less repressive approach to medical marijuana than his predecessor?

A: The difference between Obama and Bush on the medical marijuana issue is that the rhetoric from the top has been toned down and the science has been toned up, in terms of looking at [the medical value of] nonsmoked components of marijuana. Obama said he would be guided by science. Legalization advocates misread the tea leaves. Until federal law changes, I don't think we should expect to see major changes in medical marijuana policy.