Obama Explains Medical Marijuana Crackdown -- Sort Of

April 25, 2012

Chris Roberts, SF Weekly

Mystery accompanied the federal Justice Department's crackdown on California's state-legal medical marijuana industry since Oct. 7, when prosecutors formally declared their war on weed. Who was behind the feds deciding it was time to shut down hundreds of California dispensaries -- rogue prosecutors? Drug warriors in the Attorney General's office? Eric Holder himself, despite multiple public statements that pot wasn't a priority? The Northern District of California made a practice of not commenting to the media as it shut down five San Francisco dispensaries and moved in February to shut down four more -- all of which, at least for now, are still open.

But at last, somebody in Washington finally took responsibility for the crackdown. The buck, it turns out, stops with President Barack Obama, who explained the government's actions in an interview with Rolling Stone.

Obama's rationale: He never made a promise to ignore federal law, and even if he did, he can't, because Congress, not the White House, makes the laws. That turbid statement was dismissed by medical cannabis advocates as "underwhelming, inaccurate," and ignoring "medical marijuana as a public health issue."

Read More On How Local Democrats Respond To Obama:

Well before the federal crackdown became an international news story, SF Weekly was among the first publications in the country to point out that Obama's record on marijuana did not match up to his rhetoric.

Both on the campaign trail and shortly after taking office, Obama promised not to use federal enforcement to circumvent state medical marijuana law -- which is exactly what he's done. No dispensaries shut down, and most medical marijuana operators currently serving time in federal prison -- including former dispensary operator Scott Feil, master gardener Eddy Lepp, or Dr. Mollie Fry and her husband Dale Schafer -- have been convicted of or even accused of supplying for-profit illegal drug rings.

Yet one can still buy Humboldt outdoor in Hawaii and Skywalker OG Kush in New York City -- actions with no defense in state or federal law, and which can be taken without too much trouble, either -- so what the fuck?

Obama got a bit defensive -- and blamed drug dealers.

"I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana --  and the reason is, because it's against federal law," the president said. "The only tension that's come up -- and this gets hyped up a lot -- is a murky area where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users.

"I can't ask the Justice Department to say, 'Ignore completely a federal law that's on the books.' What I can say is, 'Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.' As a consequence, there haven't been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes," Obama said.

The problem is that Feil -- incarcerated at a privately run federal prison in Taft -- was sentenced to prison for just that. Americans for Safe Access, a medical cannabs users' advocacy group, called bullshit on Obama's explanation.

"President Obama failed to come clean on reasons for the breadth and intensity of the attacks, which significantly escalated since he took office," wrote Kris Hermes, an ASA spokesman. "U.S. Attorneys have made little reference to targeting medical marijuana businesses because they're allegedly selling to non-patients. The prevailing excuse has been simply that dispensaries are federally illegal or that they are too close to schools and other so-called "sensitive uses" (according to federal standards, not to local or state standards)."

Obama's been repeatedly called the worst-ever president on medical marijuana. That may be true, though keep in mind no DEA raids have occurred in the Bay Area under Obama.

Also note that on aggregate, Obama's also had the most-ever medical marijuana to deal with -- an industry explosion he helped foment when he encouraged folks to get into the game by suggesting, as a candidate and now president, that it was at last time for the feds to lay off.

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