President Barack Obama's stance on medical cannabis has been nebulous: As candidate, he said the drug war was a failure and that it was "appropriate" for doctors to prescribe pot to treat illnesses. As president, Obama's Justice Department said chasing after pot growers and users was a poor use of federal resources, even as the DEA continued to bust law-abiding medical marijuana providers and distributors.
For a few weeks now, activists have been waiting for Attorney General Eric Holder to "reclarify" exactly what the Justice Department plans to do about medical marijuana that is legal in some states yet illegal when it comes to the feds. In a memo dated June 29, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole did just that: Marijuana is illegal, and the federal government can prosecute any user at any time for growing, selling, or transporting it, state law be damned, he wrote.
Consider the Obama administration's view on pot clarified -- and
consider cannabis activists furious, dubbing the memo a "reneging,"
"backpedaling," "insane," and "beneficial only to Mexican drug cartels
and law enforcement agencies that rely on drug asset forfeitures."
At least they know where they stand.
In our cover story in April, SF Weekly reported that while legally worthless, Justice Department memos are nonetheless influential documents that guide actions by local governments and how they handle pot-producing factories all the way down to the lowest-level closet grower's operation. This latest memo isn't the first time the department has given guidance on medical cannabis. In October 2009, it issued the now-famous "Ogden memo" in which the Justice Department said prosecuting state legal cannabis was a waste of resources.
That helped spark a medical marijuana boom -- "It's legal!" was the
prevailing wisdom -- until our own Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney
for the Northern District of California, penned another missive earlier this year reminding any and all interested parties that federal law outlaws cannabis and anyone growing it is a criminal subject to prosecution and incarceration.
to Wednesday and the following statement from Cole: "The Department of Justice
is committed to the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act in all
States," the deputy attorney general wrote in a memo under the heading
"Guidance Regarding the Ogden Memo in Jurisdictions Seeking to Authorize
Marijuana for Medical Use."
"The Department's view
of the efficient use of limited federal resources as articulated in the
Ogden Memorandum has not changed. There has, however, been an increase
in the scope of commercial cultivation, sale, distribution, and use of
marijuana for purported medical purposes. For example, within the past
12 months, several jurisdictions have considered or enacted legislation
to authorize multiple large-scale, privately operated industrial
marijuana cultivation centers. Some of these planned facilities have
revenue projections of millions of dollars based on the planned
cultivation of tens of thousands of cannabis plants.
Memorandum was never intended to shield such activities from federal
enforcement action and prosecution, even where those activities purport
to comply with state law. Persons who are in the business of
cultivating, selling, or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly
facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled
Substances Act, regardless of state law. Consistent with resource
constraints and the discretion you may exercise in your district, such
persons are subject to federal enforcement action, including potential
prosecution. State laws or local ordinances are not a defense to civil
or criminal enforcement of federal law with respect to such conduct,
including enforcement of the CSA. Those who engage in transactions
involving the proceeds of such activity may also be in violation of
federal money laundering statutes and other federal financial laws."
contacted the Justice Department for comment shortly before the close
of business on Thursday; we have yet to receive a response.
Medical marijuana advocates were borderline apoplectic.
"This rolls out the red carpet for illicit dealers," fumed Morgan Fox,
communications director for Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, a
pro-legalization lobbying group. "The only people that will benefit
from this are law enforcement groups that depend on asset forfeiture,
and Mexican drug cartels. Patients, local communities, and every
American taxpayer will bear the brunt of this insane policy."
more, the Justice Department just caught itself in its own web of lies,
according to Kris Hermes, media specialist for patient advocacy group
Americans for Safe Access.
"The claims of Deputy AG Cole that
threatening public officials with arrest and prosecution is consistent
with the Ogden memo is incredible," Hermes wrote in an e-mail. "This
so-called clarification upholds the recent status quos of aggressive
enforcement against state and local medical marijuana laws, in direct
contradiction to Obama's comment on the campaign trail that he was 'not
going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent
This hard-line stance comes a week after Rep.
Ron Paul (R-TX) introduced federal legislation that would finally remove medical marijuana from the same category as drugs like heroin.
Could Obama's turn against legal medical marijuana be
seen as purely political, a move to placate the Republicans in Congress at a time when he needs their support to raise the debt ceiling?
but if so, it's misguided, according to Tom Angell of Law Enforcement
"This president is simply continuing the harassment
and interference policies of the Bush Administration when it comes to
actually providing patients with their doctor-recommended medicine,"
Angell wrote in an e-mail. "With 80 percent of the public supporting
medical marijuana, this doesn't seem like a very smart reelection