"I would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users. It's not a good use of our resources." - Barack Obama, Aug, 21, 2007
“It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana” - Attorney General Eric Holder, October 19, 2009
It’s safe to say that people who have been involved in drug policy reform are pretty disappointed with the Obama Administration. However, up until recently, there was one area where they generally agreed the President was on the right track: medical marijuana. Shortly after his election, Obama and other administration officials made it clear that they would refrain from prosecuting medical marijuana distributors as long as they complied with state laws.
During its first two years, the administration more or less kept its word and dealing with medical marijuana was never a priority for the Justice Department. Yet despite all of this, the four federal prosecutors for the state of California recently made the rather shocking announcement that they would be cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries. They planned on going after distributors who violated parts of the Controlled Substances Act, “even if such activities are permitted under state law.”
And they proceeded to do just that. On October 13, the DEA raided the Northstone Organics grow-op in Mendicino County, California. Northstone Organics was considered a model dispensary by local law enforcement officials, who lauded the grower’s commitment to complying with state and local laws. Since then, the DEA has stepped up its raids in California and other states.
In addition to raiding dispensaries and growers, the federal government has found other ways to undermine state sanctioned medical marijuana operations. On September 21, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued a letter stating that it was illegal for anyone who used medical marijuana to possess a gun and that it was also illegal to sell a gun to someone who was in possession of a medical marijuana card.
The IRS has also come out swinging against medical marijuana. Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, one of the largest dispensaries in the country, was recently saddled with $2.5 million in back taxes after the IRS invoked a part of the tax code that removes deductions for businesses related to the trafficking of illicit substances. Harborside has no idea how it will possibly be able to pay the new taxes, and the ruling has dispensaries across the country worried that the feds will use this new tactic to put them out of business.
The reason for this reversal of administration policy is not readily apparent, so the move has naturally left one question on everybody’s mind: Why? Getting tough on medical marijuana is not exactly something that the electorate has been clamoring for but there has to be some kind of logic to this escalation of the federal war on medical marijuana. I’m going to attempt to discern what could possibly be behind this change of priorities.
Perhaps the the reasons are political? President Obama’s approval rating is at an all-time low and the administration desperately needs something to boost its popularity. Maybe this could be an attempt to woo the public as the election year draws nearer? But hold on. A medical marijuana crackdown can’t possible be the “something” that this administration needs. As 2010 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that a whopping 81% of Americans support the legalization of medical marijuana, and every other poll done in the past few years points to a solid majority of the electorate supporting it. If this move is being made for political reasons, the administration has made a serious miscalculation.
Perhaps the reasons are moral? Drug abuse is a serious problem in this country and no administration has ever been able to make a serious dent in rates of abuse since the War on Drugs was declared by President Nixon in 1971. Maybe Obama thinks that marijuana is a soul destroying plague that must be wiped from the Earth lest we all become be hopelessly addicted and civilization disappears into a mushroom cloud of pot smoke. But hold on. Barack Obama can’t possibly believe all of the drug war rhetoric about the life ruining effects of marijuana. After all, he admits to having smoked regularly in his youth and I’m sure he thinks he turned out alright. Never mind the fact that every study done in the past few years has found that marijuana is not physically addictive and is less dangerous than alcohol.
Perhaps the reasons are financial? The United States is running short on cash, so maybe President Obama doesn’t want to waste money dealing with all the problems caused by medical marijuana. But wait. If anything, it appears that medical marijuana actually makes money for the government. Up to $100 million worth of tax revenue for California alone in 2010. Not to mention the reduction in enforcement costs that comes with not wasting resources going after dispensaries and growers that comply with state laws.
None of this adds up. Why on Earth might President Obama be escalating the federal government's war on medical marijuana? The only thing I have left to do is follow the money. Turns out the trail leads right to the pharmaceutical industry, which unsurprisingly donated millions of dollars to Obama’s campaign in 2008. In fact, pharmaceutical companies gave Barack Obama almost three times as much money as they gave John McCain in the last presidential election. Gee, I wonder what the guys who make their money manufacturing pills could possibly have against a medicine that anyone can grow in their backyard. With the next Presidential election expected to be a multi-billion dollar escapade, it would be prudent to take a look at the money trail any time a politician's motives come into question.