Obama’s War on Pot

Feb 18, 2012

Back when he was run­ning for pres­i­dent in 2008, Barack Obama insisted that med­ical mar­i­juana was an issue best left to state and local gov­ern­ments. “I’m not going to be using Jus­tice Depart­ment resources to try to cir­cum­vent state laws on this issue,” he vowed, promis­ing an end to the Bush administration’s high-profile raids on providers of med­ical pot, which is legal in 16 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia. But over the past year, the Obama admin­is­tra­tion has qui­etly unleashed a multi­agency crack­down on med­ical cannabis that goes far beyond any­thing under­taken by George W. Bush. The feds are bust­ing grow­ers who oper­ate in full com­pli­ance with state laws, vow­ing to seize the prop­erty of any­one who dares to even rent to legal pot dis­pen­saries, and threat­en­ing to imprison state employ­ees respon­si­ble for reg­u­lat­ing med­ical mar­i­juana. With more than 100 raids on pot dis­pen­saries dur­ing his first three years, Obama is now on pace to exceed Bush’s record for medical-marijuana busts. “There’s no ques­tion that Obama’s the worst pres­i­dent on med­ical mar­i­juana,” says Rob Kampia, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Mar­i­juana Pol­icy Project. “He’s gone from first to worst.” The fed­eral crack­down imper­ils the med­ical care of the esti­mated 730,000 patients nation­wide – many of them seri­ously ill or dying – who rely on state-sanctioned mar­i­juana rec­om­mended by their doc­tors. In addi­tion, drug experts warn, the White House’s war on law-abiding providers of med­ical mar­i­juana will only drum up busi­ness for real crim­i­nals. “The admin­is­tra­tion is going after legal dis­pen­saries and state and local author­i­ties in ways that are going to push this stuff back under­ground again,” says Ethan Nadel­mann, direc­tor of the Drug Pol­icy Alliance. Gov. Lin­coln Chafee of Rhode Island, a for­mer Repub­li­can sen­a­tor who has urged the DEA to legal­ize med­ical mar­i­juana, pulls no punches in describ­ing the state of affairs pro­duced by Obama’s efforts to cir­cum­vent state law: “Utter chaos.” In its first two years, the Obama admin­is­tra­tion took a refresh­ingly sane approach to med­ical mar­i­juana. Shortly after Obama took office, a senior drug-enforcement offi­cial pledged to Rolling Stone that the ques­tion of whether mar­i­juana is med­i­cine would now be deter­mined by sci­ence, “not ide­ol­ogy.” In March 2009, Attor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder empha­sized that the Jus­tice Depart­ment would only tar­get medical-marijuana providers “who vio­late both fed­eral and state law.” The next morn­ing, a head­line in The New York Times read OBAMA ADMINISTRATION TO STOP RAIDS ON MEDICAL MARIJUANA DISPENSERS. While all forms of mar­i­juana would remain strictly ille­gal under fed­eral law – the DEA ranks cannabis as a Sched­ule I drug, on par with heroin – the feds would respect state pro­tec­tions for providers of med­ical pot. Fram­ing the Obama administration’s new approach, drug czar Gil Ker­likowske famously declared, “We’re not at war with peo­ple in this coun­try.” That orig­i­nal hands-off pol­icy was cod­i­fied in a Jus­tice Depart­ment memo writ­ten in Octo­ber 2009 by Deputy Attor­ney Gen­eral David Ogden. The so-called “Ogden memo” advised fed­eral law-enforcement offi­cials that the “ratio­nal use of its lim­ited inves­tiga­tive and pros­e­cu­to­r­ial resources” meant that medical-marijuana patients and their “care­givers” who oper­ate in “clear and unam­bigu­ous com­pli­ance with exist­ing state law” could be left alone. At the same time, Ogden was con­cerned that the feds not “be made a fool of” by ille­gal drug traf­fick­ers. In that vein, his memo advised U.S. attor­neys to focus on going after pot dis­pen­saries that posed as med­i­c­i­nal but were actively engaged in crim­i­nal acts, such as sell­ing to minors, pos­ses­sion of ille­gal firearms or money-laundering. The idea, as Holder put it, was to raid only those hard­core traf­fick­ers who “use medical-marijuana laws as a shield.” The Ogden memo sent a clear mes­sage to the states: The feds will only inter­vene if you allow pot dis­pen­saries to oper­ate as a front for crim­i­nal activ­ity. States from New Mex­ico to Maine moved quickly to license and reg­u­late dis­pen­saries through their state health depart­ments – giv­ing med­ical mar­i­juana unprece­dented legit­i­macy. In Cal­i­for­nia, which had allowed “care­givers” to oper­ate dis­pen­saries, med­ical pot blos­somed into a $1.3 bil­lion enter­prise – shielded from fed­eral blow­back by the Ogden memo. The administration’s recog­ni­tion of med­ical cannabis reached its high-water mark in July 2010, when the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs val­i­dated it as a legit­i­mate course of treat­ment for sol­diers return­ing from the front lines. But it didn’t take long for the frag­ile fed­eral détente to begin to col­lapse. The rever­sal began at the Drug Enforce­ment Agency with Michele Leon­hart, a holdover from the Bush admin­is­tra­tion who was renom­i­nated by Obama to head the DEA. An anti-medical-marijuana hard-liner, Leon­hart had been rebuked in 2008 by House Judi­ciary chair­man John Cony­ers for tar­get­ing dis­pen­saries with tac­tics “typ­i­cally reserved for the worst drug traf­fick­ers and king­pins.” Her views on the larger drug war are so per­verse, in fact, that last year she cited the slaugh­ter of nearly 1,000 Mex­i­can chil­dren by the drug car­tels as a coun­ter­in­tu­itive “sign of suc­cess in the fight against drugs.” In Jan­u­ary 2011, weeks after Leon­hart was con­firmed, her agency updated a paper called “The DEA Posi­tion on Mar­i­juana.” With sub­ject head­ings like THE FALLACY OF MARIJUANA FOR MEDICINAL USE and SMOKED MARIJUANA IS NOT MEDICINE, the paper sim­ply regur­gi­tated the Bush administration’s ide­o­log­i­cal stance, in an attempt to walk back the Ogden memo. Sound­ing like Glenn Beck, the DEA even blamed “George Soros” and “a few bil­lion­aires, not broad grass­roots sup­port” for sus­tain­ing the medical-marijuana move­ment – even though polls show that 70 per­cent of Amer­i­cans approve of med­ical pot. Almost imme­di­ately, fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors went on the attack. Their first tar­get: the city of Oak­land, where local offi­cials had moved to raise mil­lions in taxes by licens­ing high-tech indoor facil­i­ties for grow­ing med­ical mar­i­juana. A month after the DEA issued its hard-line posi­tion, U.S. Attor­ney Melinda Haag warned the city that the feds were weigh­ing “crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion” against the pro­posed pot oper­a­tions. Aban­don­ing the Ogden memo’s pro­tec­tions for state-sanctioned “care­givers,” Haag effec­tively re-declared war on med­ical pot. “We will enforce the Con­trolled Sub­stances Act vig­or­ously against indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions that par­tic­i­pate in unlaw­ful man­u­fac­tur­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion activ­ity involv­ing mar­i­juana,” she wrote, “even if such activ­i­ties are per­mit­ted under state law.” Haag’s warn­ing shot had the desired effect: Oak­land quickly scut­tled its plans, even though the taxes pro­vided by the indoor grows could have single-handedly wiped out the city’s $31 mil­lion deficit. Two months later, fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in Wash­ing­ton state went even fur­ther, threat­en­ing state employ­ees respon­si­ble for imple­ment­ing new reg­u­la­tions for pot dis­pen­saries. U.S. attor­neys sent a let­ter to Gov. Chris­tine Gre­goire, warn­ing that state employ­ees “would not be immune from lia­bil­ity under the Con­trolled Sub­stances Act.” Shocked by the threat – “It sub­jected Wash­ing­ton state employ­ees to felony crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion!” – Gre­goire vetoed the new rules. A sim­i­lar fed­eral threat in Rhode Island forced Chafee to fol­low suit, putting an indef­i­nite hold on the planned open­ing of three state-licensed “com­pas­sion cen­ters” to dis­trib­ute mar­i­juana to seri­ously ill patients. In iso­la­tion, such moves might be seen as the work of overzeal­ous U.S. attor­neys, who oper­ate with con­sid­er­able auton­omy. But last June, the Jus­tice Depart­ment effec­tively declared that it was return­ing to the Bush administration’s hard-line stance on med­ical mar­i­juana. James Cole, who had replaced Ogden as deputy attor­ney gen­eral, wrote a memo revok­ing his predecessor’s def­er­ence to states on the def­i­n­i­tion of “care­giver.” The term, Cole insisted, applied only to “indi­vid­u­als pro­vid­ing care to indi­vid­u­als with can­cer or other seri­ous ill­nesses, not com­mer­cial oper­a­tions cul­ti­vat­ing, sell­ing or dis­trib­ut­ing mar­i­juana.” Pot dis­pen­saries, in short, were once again prime fed­eral tar­gets, even if they were fol­low­ing state law to the let­ter. “The Cole memo basi­cally adopted the Bush pol­icy,” says Kampia, “which was only that the Jus­tice Depart­ment will not go after indi­vid­ual patients.” In real­ity, how­ever, the Obama admin­is­tra­tion has also put patients in the cross hairs. Last Sep­tem­ber, the Bureau of Alco­hol, Tobacco and Firearms moved to deprive Amer­i­cans who use med­ical mar­i­juana of their gun rights. In an open let­ter to gun sell­ers, the ATF warned that it is unlaw­ful to sell “any firearm or ammu­ni­tion” to “any per­son who uses or is addicted to mar­i­juana, regard­less of whether his or her state has passed leg­is­la­tion autho­riz­ing mar­i­juana use for me dic­i­nal pur­poses.” If your doc­tor advises you to use med­i­c­i­nal pot, in other words, you can no longer legally own a gun. Hunt­ing advo­cates were out­raged. Sen. Jon Tester, a Demo­c­rat from Mon­tana, wrote a furi­ous let­ter call­ing on the Jus­tice Depart­ment to reassess its “chill­ing” pol­icy, declar­ing it “unac­cept­able that law-abiding cit­i­zens would be stripped of their Sec­ond Amend­ment rights.” Since the fed­eral crack­down began last year, the DEA has raided dozens of medical-cannabis dis­pen­saries from Michi­gan to Mon­tana. Haag, the U.S. attor­ney for North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, claims the fed­eral action is nec­es­sary because the state’s legal­ized pot dis­pen­saries have been “hijacked by prof­i­teers” who are noth­ing more than crim­i­nals. It’s true that Cal­i­for­nia has no short­age of ille­gal pot deal­ers. Non­med­ical mar­i­juana is the state’s largest cash crop, rak­ing in an esti­mated $14 bil­lion a year. And demand is grow­ing, in part because for­mer gov­er­nor Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger thwarted a bal­lot mea­sure aimed at full legal­iza­tion in 2010 by remov­ing crim­i­nal penal­ties for pos­ses­sion of up to an ounce of pot. But instead of focus­ing lim­ited fed­eral resources on off-the-grid grow­ers in places like Hum­boldt County, who are often armed and vio­lent, Haag tar­geted Matthew Cohen, a medical-marijuana farmer in Men­do­cino who was grow­ing 99 plants under the direct super­vi­sion of the county sher­iff. As part of a pio­neer­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion with local law enforce­ment, Cohen marked each of his plants with county-supplied tags, had his secured facil­ity inspected and dis­trib­uted the mari­juana he grew directly to patients in his non­profit col­lec­tive. Cohen appeared to be pre­cisely the kind of care­giver that the Ogden memo advised should be given safe har­bor for oper­at­ing in “clear and unam­bigu­ous com­pli­ance with exist­ing state law.” But last Octo­ber, DEA agents stormed Cohen’s farm in the mid­dle of the night and cut down his crop. Sher­iff Tom All­man, who learned of the raid on his turf only an hour before it was exe­cuted, was out­raged. “Matt Cohen was not in vio­la­tion of any state or local ordi­nances when fed­eral agents arrived at his loca­tion,” All­man says. In Jan­u­ary, Haag took the fight to the next level, threat­en­ing county offi­cials like All­man with fed­eral sanc­tions. Three weeks later, county super­vi­sors voted to aban­don the pro­gram to license and mon­i­tor Mendocino’s legal grow­ers. “This is a huge step back­ward,” says All­man. Haag’s treat­ment of urban dis­pen­saries has been equally ham-handed. She recently shut­tered one of the old­est dis­pen­saries in the state, a non­profit that serves a high per­cent­age of female patients in Marin County, which has the nation’s high­est rate of breast can­cer. She has threat­ened to seize the prop­er­ties that land­lords rent to legal pot dis­pen­saries. And in San Fran­cisco, she tar­geted Divin­ity Tree, a coöper­a­tive run by a quad­ri­plegic who him­self relies on pre­scribed cannabis for relief from near-constant mus­cle spasms. At a time of high unem­ploy­ment and huge bud­get deficits, the move killed more than a dozen jobs and deprived the state of $180,000 in annual tax rev­enue. In San Diego alone, the feds have shut down nearly two-thirds of the county’s dis­pen­saries. Statewide, the United Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers Union esti­mates, the fed­eral crack­down has destroyed some 2,500 jobs in Cal­i­for­nia. It also sent street prices soar­ing by at least 20 per­cent, putting more money in the hands of actual crim­i­nals. In addi­tion, the fed­eral war on med­ical mar­i­juana has locked pot dis­pen­saries out of the bank­ing sys­tem – espe­cially in Col­orado, home to the nation’s second-largest mar­ket for med­i­c­i­nal cannabis. Top banks – includ­ing Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of Amer­ica – are refus­ing to do busi­ness with state-licensed dis­pen­saries, for fear of fed­eral pros­e­cu­tion for money-laundering and other fed­eral drug crimes. In a House hear­ing in Decem­ber, Rep. Jared Polis of Col­orado warned Attor­ney Gen­eral Holder that strong-arming banks will actu­ally raise the like­li­hood of crime. If pot dis­pen­saries have to work out­side the nor­mal finan­cial sys­tem, Polis told Holder, “it makes the indus­try harder for the state to track, to tax, to reg­u­late them, and in fact makes it prone to rob­beries, because it becomes a cash busi­ness.” The IRS has also joined in the administration’s assault on pot dis­pen­saries, seek­ing to deny them stan­dard tax deduc­tions enjoyed by all other busi­nesses. Invok­ing an obscure pro­vi­sion of the tax code meant to trip up drug king­pins, the IRS now main­tains that pot dis­pen­saries can deduct only one expense – iron­i­cally, the cost of the mar­i­juana itself. All other nor­mal costs of doing busi­ness – includ­ing employee salaries and ben­e­fits, rent, equip­ment, elec­tric­ity and water – have been denied. The agency has used the pro­vi­sion to go after Har­bor­side Health Cen­ter, one of the largest and most respected providers of med­ical cannabis in Cal­i­for­nia. Its Oak­land branch, serv­ing 83,000 patients in con­form­ing with state law, paid more than $1 mil­lion in city taxes last year – plac­ing it in the top 10 per­cent of local busi­nesses. “It’s incred­i­bly tightly run and very, very pro­fes­sional,” says Nadel­mann of the Drug Pol­icy Alliance. “But it’s also big – and it may be that big is bad as far as the feds are con­cerned.” Slapped with an IRS bill for $2.5 mil­lion in back taxes, Har­bor­side now faces bank­ruptcy. “It’s pro­foundly inac­cu­rate to char­ac­ter­ize us as a ‘drug-trafficking’ orga­ni­za­tion,” says Har­bor­side pres­i­dent Steve DeAn­gelo. “We are a non­profit community-service orga­ni­za­tion that helps sick and suf­fer­ing peo­ple get the med­i­cine they need to be well. This is not an attempt to tax us – it’s an attempt to tax us out of exis­tence.” Sup­port­ers of med­ical mari­juana are baf­fled by Obama’s abrupt about-face on the issue. Some blame the fed­eral crack­down not on the pres­i­dent, but on career drug war­riors deter­mined to go after med­ical pot. “I don’t think the fed­eral onslaught is being dri­ven by the high­est lev­els of the White House,” says Nadel­mann. “What we need is a clear state­ment from the White House that fed­eral author­i­ties will defer to respon­si­ble local reg­u­la­tion.” The White House, for its part, insists that its posi­tion on med­ical pot has been “clear and con­sis­tent.” Asked for com­ment, a senior admin­is­tra­tion offi­cial points out that the Ogden memo was never meant to pro­tect “such things as large-scale, pri­vately owned indus­trial mar­i­juana cul­ti­va­tion cen­ters” like the one in Oak­land. But the offi­cial makes no attempt to explain why the admin­is­tra­tion has per­mit­ted a host of fed­eral agen­cies to revive the Bush-era pol­icy of tar­get­ing state-approved dis­pen­saries. “Some­where in the admin­is­tra­tion, a deci­sion was made that it would be bet­ter to close down legal, reg­u­lated sys­tems of access for patients and send them back to the street, back to crim­i­nals,” says DeAn­gelo. “That’s what’s really at stake.” The administration’s retreat on med­ical pot is cer­tainly con­sis­tent with its broader election-year strat­egy of seek­ing to out­flank Repub­li­cans on every­thing from free trade to off­shore drilling. Obama’s advis­ers may be bet­ting that a tough-on-pot stance will shore up the president’s sup­port among seniors in Novem­ber, as well as vot­ers in South­ern swing states like Vir­ginia and North Car­olina that are less favor­able to drug reform. But the pres­i­dent could pay a steep price for his anti-pot crack­down this fall, par­tic­u­larly if it winds up alien­at­ing young vot­ers in swing states like Col­orado, where two-thirds of res­i­dents sup­port med­ical mari­juana. In Novem­ber, Col­orado vot­ers will likely con­sider a ref­er­en­dum to legal­ize all pot use for adults – and under­cut­ting enthu­si­asm for the issue will only dampen turnout that could ben­e­fit the pres­i­dent. “Med­ical mar­i­juana is twice as pop­u­lar as Obama,” notes Kampia. “It doesn’t make any polit­i­cal sense.” The sharpest and most sur­pris­ing rebuke to the admin­is­tra­tion has come from cen­trist gov­er­nors who are fed up with the war on med­i­c­i­nal pot. In Novem­ber, Gre­goire and Chafee issued a bipar­ti­san peti­tion to the DEA, ask­ing the agency to reclas­sify mar­i­juana as a Sched­ule II drug, the same as cocaine and meth – one with a rec­og­nized med­i­c­i­nal value, despite its high poten­tial for abuse. “It’s time to show com­pas­sion, and it’s time to show com­mon sense,” says Gre­goire. “We call on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to end the con­fu­sion and the unsafe bur­den on patients.” A peti­tion by two sit­ting gov­er­nors is his­toric – but it’s unlikely to shift fed­eral pol­icy. Last June, after a nine-year delay, the Obama admin­is­tra­tion denied a sim­i­lar peti­tion. An offi­cial at the Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices left lit­tle hope for reclas­si­fi­ca­tion, reit­er­at­ing the Bush-era posi­tion that there is “no accepted med­ical use for mar­i­juana in the United States.” For law-enforcement offi­cials who han­dle mar­i­juana on the front lines, such atti­tudes high­light how out of touch the admin­is­tra­tion has become. “Whether you call it med­ical or recre­ational, the mar­i­juana genie is out of the bot­tle, and there’s no one who’s going to put it back in,” insists Sher­iff All­man of Men­do­cino, whose depart­ment had been tar­geted by fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors for its attempts to reg­u­late med­ical pot. “For fed­eral offi­cials who plug their ears and say, ‘No, it’s not true, it’s not true,’ I have some words for them: You need to get over it.” The story is from the March 1, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone. Source: Rolling Stone (US) Author: Tim Dick­in­son Pub­lished: March 1, 2012 Copy­right: 2012 Straight Arrow Pub­lish­ers Com­pany, L.P. Con­tact: letters@​rollingstone.​com Web­site: http://​www​.rolling​stone​.com/

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Obama’s War on Pot

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