California medical marijuana growers face pressure
July 01, 2011
Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle
A new Obama administration memo approves federal prosecution of anyone in the business of growing or supplying marijuana for medical patients even if they are complying with state law, a contradiction, advocacy groups say, of President Obama's pledge to let states set their own policies.
The memo, issued Wednesday by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, insisted that the Justice Department hadn't abandoned the policy it announced in a set of guidelines in October 2009.
Those guidelines discouraged federal prosecutors from charging people who were following laws in California and other states that allow the medical use of marijuana, despite the federal government's absolute ban on the drug.
Obama had promised as a presidential candidate, and reaffirmed soon after taking office, that his administration would take a hands-off approach to medical marijuana and let states chart their own course.
In his memo to local U.S. attorneys, Cole said the October 2009 policy was intended to spare seriously ill patients and their caregivers from prosecution. At the same time, he said, there has been "an increase in the scope of commercial cultivation, sale, distribution and use of marijuana for purported medical purposes."
"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," Cole said. Enforcement of that federal law, he added, "remains a core priority."
Raids on suppliers
Medical marijuana advocates have accused the administration of violating its stated policies with frequent raids on suppliers in the 16 states with such laws, and more recently with warnings to officials in at least 10 states that they could face prosecution if they authorized dispensaries to sell pot to patients.
They said Friday that Cole's memo comes close to repudiating Obama's long-standing promise.
Steph Scherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, which describes itself as the nation's largest medical marijuana advocacy group, said the administration is claiming to respect the rights of patients to use marijuana while "denying them the means to use it legally."
"It is disingenuous of the Obama administration to say it is not attacking patients while obstructing the implementation of local and state medical marijuana laws," Scherer said in a statement.
Because federal prosecutions would disrupt state-approved channels for supplying marijuana to patients, "the only entity benefiting from President Obama's stance on this is organized crime," said Tom Angell, spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which advocates drug decriminalization.
California's voter-approved 1996 law allowed patients to grow their own marijuana or obtain it from caregivers but did not expressly authorize other sources of supply. Pot dispensaries operate under local regulation but have faced periodic raids from federal authorities, who describe them as profiteering drug dealers.
Oakland's bold move
Anticipating voter approval last year of a state ballot measure legalizing personal use of marijuana - which was defeated in part because of Obama administration threats of federal prosecution - the Oakland City Council drafted an ordinance to legalize large indoor pot farms.
Council members retained the proposal after the election as a potential supply source for medical patients, but put it on hold in February after U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag told them it would violate both state and federal law.
The administration's warnings to officials in other states have also had an impact, said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access.
He cited threats of federal prosecution that led Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire to veto a bill that would have legalized medical marijuana dispensaries, and prompted Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee to shelve plans to license dispensaries under a 2009 state law.
But Hermes said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed a law in May that legalized both medical marijuana and state-regulated distribution centers, and Vermont's governor, Peter Shumlin, brushed off warnings by federal prosecutors in June and approved four dispensaries for marijuana patients.
"We need local and state officials to stand up and not buckle to intimidation," Hermes said.