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Obama's War on Weed: President Attacks Medical Marijuana 

Wednesday, Oct 26 2011
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Phoenix attorney Ty Taber sees it as a major states' rights issue. "Basically, the citizens of these states ... they want marijuana legalized," he says. If Obama wants to play hardball, he says, "You're going to get pushback."

Taber represents Compassion First, a company that helps set up dispensaries. The firm sued Arizona after Gov. Jan Brewer, in blatant defiance of voters' wishes, derailed the dispensary portion of Arizona's new law by instructing the Department of Health to reject applications. She simultaneously sued the federal government, asking a judge to rule on whether the state's new law was legal. (Ironically, the Justice Department's civil arm is defending itself against the lawsuit — and if the feds win, Arizona might get its first dispensaries.)

Compassion First wants the program implemented as Arizonans intended, and to remove blockades Brewer has thrown in its path. For instance, Arizona requires dispensary owners to have been residents for at least three years.

But the point isn't whether the company will win its lawsuit — it's that people are fighting back, and they're not alone.

Across the country, advocates are returning fire in the court system. Which means Obama won't be able to do battle by the relatively cheap means of letters and threats. He'll likely end up burning through millions of dollars in litigation — money the federal government doesn't have.

Taber thinks the president may have underestimated his foe. "The people behind this marijuana movement — they're committed. They are zealots. And these are smart people — not stoners saying, 'Hey dude, pass another slice of pizza.'"

Half-hearted crackdowns don't work


The latest crackdown will be bad for the pot business. No question. But Obama could be doing much more.

He could go after patients. Over the summer, a federal judge ruled that the DEA could peek at the names on Michigan's patient registry. Because marijuana is illegal under federal law, said Judge Hugh Brenneman Jr., patients can't expect privacy.

The feds could also hit pot-tolerant cities. The law doesn't allow municipal workers to be jailed in such prosecutions, but cities or counties could be heavily fined just for setting zoning requirements for dispensaries.

There's a huge downside to that, of course. Obama will only appear mean and small for having sickly grandmas arrested. And fining cities enrages residents picking up the tab — the people whose support the president will need a year from now.

All of which finds him fighting at partial speed. That, in turn, leaves Taber's "zealots" betting their money and freedom that even if the feds throw the book at some, it won't be them.

Last week, the feds raided several growing operations in California and Oregon, including one in Mendocino County that appeared to be playing by the state rules. But it seems safe to assume that few of the hundreds of other Mendocino growers uprooted their crops in response — just as the hundreds of dispensaries in California did not immediately close their doors after the feds' ominous Oct. 7 warning.

The industry seems to be practicing a form of civil disobedience. And it has tens of thousands of seriously sick people behind it, who will holler loudly if they're forced back to the black market.

Indeed, there are some signs that Obama's crackdown will be what SF Weekly's Chris Roberts calls a "passive aggressive" strategy. Rather than offend Americans with news footage of police raids, Obama has launched a war of attrition.

Landlords, worried the feds will steal their property, will tell dispensaries to move out. Banks won't handle money for pot-themed businesses. Dispensaries will be taxed so heavily they won't be able to cover the payroll or pay the electric bill.

Yet it's uncertain whether federal prosecutors, who undoubtedly have more serious criminals to contend with, will carry out the threat. When Jack Gillund, U.S. Attorney Haag's spokesman, was asked whether her office had the resources to go after every dispensary and grower who doesn't comply with the 45-day deadline, he offered a simple "no comment."

Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in California's Eastern District, says Wagner's goal isn't to shut down everything. He's focusing on "large, professional, money-making operations — the commercial operations."

Horwood also says that it's wrong to call it "Obama's crackdown." She says the California U.S. Attorneys decided to take action on their own because the situation has grown out of control among recreational users. But she acknowledges that they received the president's blessing.

It's classic political strategy: Send the underlings out to take the heat, while the bosses hide.

Either way, the result casts Obama as even more zealous than George W. Bush. Bush threatened owners of dispensary properties in 2007, but never followed up. Meanwhile, Colorado and other states have seen no similar crackdowns. Only time will tell whether Obama plans to destroy the entire medical marijuana industry, or merely smack California around for a bit.

"I'm willing to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt," says Blair Butterworth, a Democratic consultant in Seattle, where about 100 dispensaries operate. "In California, they may be sitting on uncontrollable drug sales. They need to slap some wrists."

It's easy to pick on California, a state known for its excesses. But "the last thing Obama needs right now is to go to war nationally with the medical marijuana community," Butterworth says.

Leniency for marijuana users, medical or otherwise, continues to be a popular Democratic stance, he says. Butterworth is helping the campaign to put outright legalization on the Washington state ballot next year. He thinks it's got a good chance.

Of course, a successful election could tick off the feds even more.

A million patients can't be wrong


An estimated one million people in California have obtained a doctor's recommendation to grow and use marijuana legally.

More than 150,000 medical marijuana patients have registered in Colorado as of July.

About The Author

Ray Stern

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