U.S. AG says medical marijuana raids to end

February 26, 2009

Donna Tam, Times-Standard

Remarks made by the U.S. attorney general at a recent press conference have given medical marijuana advocates hope that the federal government will be stopping dispensary raids and working toward establishing a policy to aid patients with access.

In a press conference Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration would uphold the president's campaign promises to end such raids, calling it “American policy.”

A reporter pointed out that after the inauguration, the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, conducted several raids in California despite President Barack Obama's promises, and asked Holder if those raids were a reflection of the government's policy going forward.

”No,” Holder said in response. “What the president said during the campaign, you'll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we'll be doing in law enforcement. He was my boss during the campaign. He is formally and technically and by law my boss now. What he said during the campaign is now American policy.”

Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, said the short statement may be an indicator of changes to medical marijuana enforcement and regulation policy.

”The Obama administration appears to be willing to stand to reason and set a sensible policy around medical marijuana,” he said. “We certainly hope it means that there will be no further raids on medical marijuana providers in California and other states.”

Hermes said several raids occurred after Obama's inauguration. Currently there are ongoing threats being made by the DEA against property owners in Santa Barbara who lease to state-sanctioned medical marijuana providers, causing the eviction of many dispensaries, he said.

”We're going to assume that they were actions of holdovers from the Bush administration,” Hermes said.

Attempts to contact the U.S. Attorney General's Office for further comment were unsuccessful.

Special Agent Jocelyn Barnes of the DEA Office located in San Francisco said she could not validate the Holder's remarks.

”Right now we're not at any liberty to make any comments about medical marijuana at all. We're waiting on the direction of Washington, D.C.,” she said.

Dennis Turner, CEO of The Humboldt Cooperative, said the statement is a relief. He recognizes that the medical marijuana dispensary industry is a pioneer one, but hopes that Holder's remark may be a sign of better things to come.

”Anytime you have something new -- and you're formulating as you go -- things change constantly and the platform will shift,” Turner said. “You need to be flexible and adaptive. ... That's all you can do.”

Neal Sanders, a Eureka attorney who specializes in marijuana cases, said federal regulation has not been the problem in Humboldt County, but what Holder said indicates progress for medical marijuana patients.

”I think this is a very good first step for patients here in California and other jurisdictions,” Sanders said.

The federal government has always been at odds with state and local agencies when it comes to the regulation of medical marijuana. Sanders said in this county, the ones doing the raiding are local law enforcement.

”Here in Humboldt County, we've been very fortunate in that the federal government hasn't come in and interfered with dispensaries,” he said.

Arcata attorney Jeffrey Schwartz said he's noticed an increase in the number of medical marijuana criminal cases over the past 18 months or so.

He said it seems like there has been less tolerance from local law enforcement when it comes to marijuana grows, even when the growers have Proposition 215 cards.

Holder's statement may sway local law enforcement's attitude, he said.

”I think if they know that the feds are going to respect the state's rights, it could make a difference,” Schwartz said.

Hermes said there are still many questions that need to be answered: What will happen to medical marijuana advocates who are facing federal sentencing? What kinds of changes can be expected to federal policy?

”Hopefully, it's not just in the area of raids and enforcement,” he said. “We hope that that extends to expanding research and developing a policy that will allow anyone to access medical marijuana if they would benefit from it.”



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