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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Eric Holder: AG Shaped California's Marijuana Industry And Paved Way For Legalization

Posted By on Thu, Sep 25, 2014 at 10:27 AM

click image The weed man exits. - FLICKR/US EMBASSY
  • Flickr/US Embassy
  • The weed man exits.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who tendered his resignation to President Barack Obama this morning, had a fast and furious ride indeed as the nation's chief law enforcement official.

But gun-walking is not why cannabis-scented lefties will remember Holder. In drug reform circles, his Justice Department is both lauded and derided for the series of mixed messages his administration issued on marijuana, both medical and legalized, over the last few years.

Holder's people essentially said they'd leave states alone on medical weed. But they didn't and then did when it came to legalized weed. That's helped make California's marijuana industry a mess. But it's a profitable mess, one that's undergone several "rushes" — and more than any other one government agency, Holder's Justice Department is responsible for our weed boom, as well as the current trend towards marijuana legalization nationwide. 
Cannabis cultivation exploded in California after Obama's election. On the campaign trail, Obama said that he would respect state law on cannabis, and shortly after taking office, an almost-flip Holder told reporters, with an air of "duh," that that's exactly what the Justice Department would do.

Holder's press conference was followed up by what became known as the "Ogden memo," an October 2009 missive from a top Justice Department official that seemed to codify Holder's pledge.

Except it didn't. The memo stated clearly that marijuana remained federally illegal, just that precious "law enforcement resources" ought not to be used on raiding a six-plant garden. Not that anyone listened. By then, cultivation had exploded across the state. Hadn't you heard? Obama had legalized marijuana!

Then came the fall. California flirted with marijuana legalization in 2010, under the watchful eyes of the feds, rocking on the front porch with a shotgun on their laps. After solid polling, legalization measure Prop. 19 went down in defeat after Holder announced that the federal Controlled Substances Act would be "vigorously enforced" even if the state legalized small amounts of weed. Holder's lieutenants also warned state and city officials who were laying plans for large cannabis cultivation operations that they could be prosecuted. 

Prosecutions of state-legal marijuana providers continued, as we reported in 2011, including one federal bust, presumably of a Los Angeles-area dispensary operator as retribution for winning an asset forfeiture case. Ogden's memo was followed up by another one in 2011, written by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, which confirmed that feds would still bust weed when needed.

And then the last flip-flop.

When Colorado and Washington approved marijuana legalization in 2012, Holder did nothing, which changed everything. With no federal interference, legalization happened. Some say this inaction helped turn "purple state" Colorado for Obama in the 2012 election. This week, just before his exit, Holder told Katie Couric that he might be open to rescheduling weed.

We once interviewed U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, who represents Northern California, on issues solely related to weed. With the same kind of tired amusement Holder had in that first press conference, we were informed that the drug policy issue consumes an enormous amount of public attention but a tiny amount of the Justice Department's actual time.

This may be true. A 2010 profile of Holder did not mention the word "marijuana" once. Weed may have been an afterthought to the attorney general, but Holder has been a key player in shaping the country's marijuana picture.

"After spending the first term shuttering more state-legal medical marijuana providers than Bush did in two full terms, the Holder/Obama Justice Department got much friendlier to marijuana reform following the 2012 elections," said Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority activist coalition.

"By essentially taking a hands-off approach and allowing Colorado and Washington to successfully implement legalization without interference, the administration has let these states demonstrate to the rest of the country that ending prohibition is doable," he said. "Without that accommodation and the good results that have followed, we might not have seen a situation where two other states and DC are poised to enact legalization this year."

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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