Drug War

Obama Tries to Rewrite His History of Promising Forbearance for Medical Marijuana Suppliers

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In a recent interview with Rolling Stone (noted earlier today by Mike Riggs), President Obama was asked to reconcile his administration's crackdown on medical marijuana with his promises of tolerance and noninterference in this area. His reply:

Here's what's up: What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana [dispensaries]—and the reason is, because it's against federal law. I can't nullify congressional law. I can't ask the Justice Department to say, "Ignore completely a federal law that's on the books." What I can say is, "Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage." As a consequence, there haven't been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes.

The only tension that's come up—and this gets hyped up a lot—is a murky area where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users. In that situation, we put the Justice Department in a very difficult place if we're telling them, "This is supposed to be against the law, but we want you to turn the other way." 

Here's what's up: Obama is full of shit. During his campaign, it is true, he often referred to medical marijuana users. But he also promised to leave suppliers alone. Here he is in a May 2008 interview with Oregon's Willamette Week (emphasis added):

Would you stop the DEA's raids on Oregon medical marijuana growers?

I would because I think our federal agents have better things to do, like catching criminals and preventing terrorism.

Two months earlier, when he was asked about medical marijuana in an interview with another Oregon paper, the Mail Tribune, Obama said, "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue." If a U.S. attorney threatens to prosecute people who are explicitly authorized to supply medical marijuana under state law, as John Walsh has in Colorado, surely that counts as "us[ing] Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue."

Furthermore, Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, repeatedly has promised prosecutorial forbearance for medical marijuana suppliers—not just patients—and he has done so explicitly as a fulfillment of his boss's promises and wishes, as I noted in my October cover story about Obama's drug policies: 

Attorney General Holder…claimed to be implementing Obama's promise to stop harassing state-sanctioned medical marijuana suppliers. "The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law,"Holder declared during a March 2009 session with reporters in Washington. "Given the limited resources that we have," he said during a visit to Albuquerque three months later, the Justice Department would focus on "large traffickers," not "organizations that are [distributing marijuana] in a way that is consistent with state law."…

Alarmed by [a DEA official's threats against dispensaries in Colorado], Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) asked Holder at a May 2010 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee whether they were "contrary to your stated policy." Yes, Holder said, "that would be inconsistent with the policy as we have set it out…if the entity is, in fact, operating consistent with state law and…does not have any of those factors" mentioned in the Ogden memo [such as "sales to minors," "sale of other controlled substances," and "financial and marketing activities" inconsistent with state law]. He said those criteria would determine "whether or not federal resources are going to be used to go after somebody who is dealing in marijuana."

Holder continued to offer such reassurances even after it became clear they did not amount to anything in practice. Last December, Rep. Polis again asked him specifically about medical marijuana providers (not patients) who comply with state law. Holder replied, "Where a state has taken a position, has passed a law, and people are acting in conformity with a law, not abusing the law but acting in conformity with it, and, again, given our limited resources, that would not be an enforcement priority for the Justice Department." Polis followed up with a question about bank deposits by "legal, regulated medical marijuana shops and dispensaries in Colorado." Holder gave the same response: "If…the people seeking to make the deposits are acting in conformity with state law, that would not, again, be an enforcement policy for the Justice Department."

Yet here is Obama saying, in the Rolling Stone interview, that he never promised to ease up on medical marijuana providers—only patients. As I said in my October article, that policy is indistinguishable from the Bush administration's. In fact, the Obama administration has in some ways been more aggressive in going after medical marijuana. That record cannot possibly be reconciled with Obama's promise to take a less meddlesome, more compassionate approach.

[Thanks to Richard Cowan for the tip.]