The last two weeks have been full of announcements from the federal government about marijuana policy. None of them has been positive, and none of them should be surprising.
First, the Department of Justice stated that it retained the ability to prosecute anyone who cultivates, processes, or distributes medical marijuana, regardless of state law. As noted earlier on this blog, this is not really a change in policy, but it is certainly disappointing to see the Department of Justice is unwilling to publicly recognize the legitimacy of state medical marijuana laws and would rather have patients purchasing their medicine from dangerous, illicit dealers.
Then, in a move that shouldn’t have surprised anyone, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the agency tasked with determining the legal status of drugs according to the Controlled Substances Act, decided to keep marijuana as a Schedule I substance. This classification means that the DEA will continue to assert that marijuana has no accepted medical use and should continue to be a high enforcement priority. Never mind the growing mountain of peer-reviewed studies that show the medical efficacy and relative safety of marijuana. The DEA will only pay attention to government studies, which are not approved unless the goal is to find negative effects, not medical benefits. We should not expect them to reschedule marijuana in the foreseeable future, especially since marijuana enforcement is an easy source of cash and prestige. Americans for Safe Access is currently appealing the decision in federal court, however, and hopefully they will gain some traction on this point and force the DEA to recognize the evidence in support of medical marijuana.
All this was followed by the release of the National Drug Control Strategy, which basically states that the Obama administration will continue to use scarce resources to combat the use of marijuana through criminal justice means, as well as a slightly increased program of harm reduction (which the President has said was going to be his primary focus). The strategy admits that marijuana use is at its highest in the last eight years, yet wants to continue the same strategy it has been utilizing during that same period!
The new strategy also mentions medical marijuana and, while admitting that there may be some medical uses for individual components of marijuana, continues to say that it should pass through the FDA approval process. This would be nice, if we could get all the federal agencies whose stamps of approval are needed to actually allow such research. So far the efforts of those trying to go through the official research and approval process have been blocked. In addition, the new strategy claims that medical marijuana “sends the wrong message to children” and increases the likelihood of adolescents using marijuana. This point ignores the fact that in most medical marijuana states, teen use has actually decreased since passing medical marijuana laws. Data supporting this can be found in the Marijuana Policy Project’s Teen Use Report.
So what does all this mean?
It means that all we can expect from the federal government is support of the status quo. We might get some minor concessions here and there, and the fact that the Ogden Memo has been (mostly) followed by the DOJ should not be overlooked. However, we should not look to the federal government to change policy in any drastic way simply of its own free will. They must be legally compelled to do so.
This is why we don’t need statements of policy, nice as they may be. We need different laws. We need something much more binding than policy statements, which can be distorted and rescinded at any moment without legal backing. It is imperative that we convince our legislators to support bills that will weaken the federal government’s control over marijuana policy and enforcement.
Please contact your representative in Congress, and tell them to support H.R. 2306. This bill would remove the federal government’s ability to interfere with state marijuana laws and policies. Legal change is what we really need if we want to see positive change in federal behavior.
On Wednesday, without any public announcement, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole issued a statement reiterating the Obama administration’s promise not to waste federal resources going after medical marijuana patients and their individual caregivers. This is a good start. Unfortunately, the letter goes on to say that it maintains the right to prosecute anyone in the business of cultivating, selling, or distributing marijuana to those patients. According to the letter, compliance with state law is no protection from federal marijuana laws.
When I first heard this, I feared this would be devastating to dispensaries. After sleeping on it, however, I realized the policy is as clear as mud, and it’s hard to know if anything will actually change in practice.
Despite numerous past statements by the president and attorney general that they would not go after businesses that were following state law, the Department of Justice has always had the ability to enforce federal law in medical marijuana states any time they felt like it. The fact that raids subsided in states that had clear regulations in place since the “Ogden Memo” was released in 2009 was a boon for the medical marijuana industry and allowed many patients access to unparalleled products and services. It appears that the scope and scale of some of these businesses has ruffled someone’s feathers.
The new policy (which Cole says is not new at all but simply a restatement of the “Ogden Memo”) doesn’t specify that smaller dispensaries are off-limits, but it specifically mentions the type of huge operations that were planned by Oakland last year as the focus of concern. It does not say where the size cutoff is, which is very disturbing to anyone involved in the industry.
This will certainly have a chilling effect on the types of businesses that open in medical marijuana states (and rest assured, they will continue to open). In this way, it is a huge step back from the Ogden memo.
If the spirit of the Ogden memo was to create a sense of consistency in federal enforcement, to let patients and those who supply their medicine feel safe within their own states, and make states feel confident crafting their own laws to best control medical marijuana, then Cole’s statement is a major reversal.
But is it open season on dispensaries? Probably not.
Just because the DOJ has said that they can and may prosecute anyone involved in medical marijuana distribution, does not mean that they will. If the DOJ is publicly saying that this new statement does not reflect a change in policy, there is no guarantee that they are going to suddenly start prosecuting legitimate businesses in places with clear regulations to determine their compliance with state law – especially in the case of smaller operations. They don’t have the resources for such action now any more than they did in 2009. The general public certainly doesn’t support such actions, and the political ramifications of shutting down thriving, taxpaying businesses in an economic crunch could be disastrous for the administration. It should probably be noted that President Obama’s approval rating is 45%. Support for medical marijuana is 75% nationally.
So what should we do?
We need to take the Obama administration to task. We need to decry the confusion and fear caused by such unclear policy statements. And we must demand that the federal government support safe access to medical marijuana instead of driving patients to the illicit market.
At a time when the entire world is starting to recognize the folly of marijuana prohibition, and the efficacy of marijuana in medicine is being proven more and more often, the administration needs to be moving forward.
This new policy statement is a huge step back, even if it turns out to be merely symbolic.
In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would no longer spend scarce resources going after medical marijuana patients or providers. The “Ogden memo” clearly established that federal enforcement actions would not be taken against individuals or groups that act in clear and unambiguous compliance with state laws regarding medical marijuana. For the most part, the DOJ has followed this policy.
Now, after a series of letters to various state officials from U.S. Attorneys throughout the country that has led to confusion about what the Department of Justice will allow in terms of medical marijuana providers and cultivators, Holder will supposedly clarify where the federal government stands on state marijuana laws. This has many reformers worried that the Department of Justice will remove any protections that marijuana providers have had up to this point. This would force many patients back into the criminal market, as well as destroy the well-regulated medical marijuana industry in places like Colorado, Maine, and New Mexico, and prevent other states from enacting sensible dispensary regulation.
MPP has been working with Representatives Barney Frank and Jared Polis to put pressure on the DOJ to reaffirm the “Ogden memo” and let states regulate their medical marijuana programs as they see fit, free from federal interference. Yesterday, they sent this letter to Holder asking the same thing.
We need you to tell him, too.
You can also call the Office of the Attorney General at (202)353-1555.
Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin – who MPP helped elect – just signed a bill to make Vermont state law the eighth to explicitly authorize and regulate dispensaries where registered patients can purchase medical marijuana. Today’s signing marks the culmination of a two-year lobbying effort led by MPP and the third bill signing we’ve been a part of just this month. Many thanks to Governor Shumlin and the bill’s sponsors, Senators Jeanette White, Hinda Miller, and Dick Sears for their leadership, and the dedicated patient advocates throughout the state who made the case for adding dispensaries to Vermont’s medical marijuana law.
[caption id="attachment_4156" align="aligncenter" width="384" caption="MPP’s lobbyists and several of the state’s most committed patient advocates watch as Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin signs S. 17"][/caption]
Today’s signing bucks a trend of sorts. Governors in Rhode Island, Arizona, and Washington have all put the brakes on bills or laws to allow dispensaries, after receiving threatening letters from U.S. Attorneys in their states. Shumlin and legislative leaders received a similar letter on May 4, the day before the House of Representative was slated to vote on the dispensary bill. We were able to address concerns in the House and the administration, and the next day the House passed the measure 99-44 – with a copy of the letter on the desk of each representative.
One reason we were able to convince elected officials to move forward is that, despite the letters, there has still never been a raid on any dispensaries in states that explicity recognize and regulate dispensaries and that are in compliance with those laws. On the other hand, it’s unfortunate, but not uncommon, to see raids of dispensaries in places with more ambiguous laws that don’t specifically address dispensaries. In other words, in practice, it seems U.S. Attorneys are abiding by a narrow interpretation of the policy announced in the 2009 “Ogden memo,” in which these attorneys were instructed not to take action against anyone in “clear and unambiguous compliance” with state law.
Ironically, that means the best way to avoid any federal enforcement action is to do exactly the opposite of what Washington, Arizona, and Rhode Island’s governors are doing, and instead embrace state laws that explicitly authorize and regulate dispensaries, like Gov. Shumlin and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell. Let’s hope today’s signing marks the end of this troubling trend.
Once again, federal law enforcement is cracking down on medical marijuana businesses. On Thursday, just as Gov. Chris Gregoire was considering a veto of a bill that would establish the legality of medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington, federal agents raided several Spokane dispensaries.
Technically, these actions were in step with the Ogden memo, since Washington’s medical marijuana law does not explicitly allow and regulate dispensaries. Earlier this month, however, U.S. Attorneys warned Gov. Gregoire that they could still prosecute any medical marijuana businesses, even if they were allowed under the proposed bill. This prompted the governor to threaten a veto of the bill.
As if to illustrate their point, the DEA decided to start raids at a critical legislative juncture, which can only serve to compound the fears of nervous lawmakers and the governor.
Legislators should not allow this intimidation to affect their judgment. Several states have established licensed medical marijuana industries without seeing the type of aggression we are witnessing here. The key point to remember is that there is still no indication that the feds will go after medical marijuana businesses in states that have already established their legality. This means we need to pass laws protecting safe access as soon as possible!
This week has seen a sudden explosion in DEA raids of medical marijuana businesses, leaving patients, caregivers, and activists reeling.
On Monday, 26 medical marijuana businesses throughout Montana were raided by task forces comprised of federal and local law enforcement. As usual, some arrests were made and anything of value seized as evidence under sealed warrants. Interestingly, these raids began within minutes of a vote that stalled the bill to repeal Montana’s voter-approved medical marijuana law. Patients and employees of medical marijuana businesses have been mobilizing with the help of Americans for Safe Access to respond to these strong-arm tactics.
This travesty was repeated Tuesday when the DEA and local law enforcement raided two West Hollywood dispensaries. This occurred shortly after a measure to tax medical marijuana businesses in Los Angeles passed, adding even more legitimacy to the industry there. (A video about the raids is at the bottom of this post, courtesy of ReasonTV.)
It should be noted that the Justice Department “Ogden Memo” instructs federal law enforcement not to spend resources going after medical marijuana businesses as long as they are following state law. Of course, the Justice Department thinks all these businesses were violating state law, but is that for them to decide, or the states?
From all accounts, the California dispensaries that were raided were model businesses. Unfortunately, Montana’s medical marijuana law is vague when it comes to dispensaries, but there are several bills currently being considered by the state legislature that would establish their legality and a system of tight controls. For the DEA to go in now like angry thugs, when the exact extent of the law is in a state of flux, is unacceptable.
The manner in which these raids are taking place is equally unacceptable. These businesses are trying to follow every law and pay their taxes like any other legitimate business. Yet, when their compliance is in question, the federal government attacks them with threats and violence, taking money and destroying property. Where else does this happen? If an automobile manufacturer accidentally miscalculates its taxes or unintentionally steps outside of an unclear law, charges are filed and the issue is dealt with in court peacefully. Federal agents don’t kick down the factory doors, destroy all the cars on the lot, or sell off the factory equipment. They don’t handcuff the autoworkers and force them to lie on the ground with guns in their faces.
This aggression toward medical marijuana businesses must stop.
Please click here to ask President Obama to stand by his promises and end the raids.