President, Attorney General, and Senate Leader Voice Support for Reform, While DEA Rebukes Leadership

January 28, 2014 | Mike Liszewski

In the past week and a half, three of the most prominent leaders in Washington, President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Attorney General Eric Holder, have all made announcements that signal now is the time to reform federal laws and policies that prevent the implementation of state medical cannabis laws. In an interview last week with The New Yorker, President Obama acknowledged that cannabis is no more dangerous than alcohol. On January 16th, Majority Leader Reid said to the Las Vegas Sun,  “I think we need to take a real close look at this...I think that there’s some medical reasons for marijuana.” Then on Friday, AG Holder announced that a policy change would soon be unveiled to allow state-approved marijuana businesses to use banking services, currently a major hindrance to medical cannabis providers.

These announcements made over such a brief a period of time comprise some of the boldest statements to date from federal officials in Washington. President Obama's comparison to alcohol raise serious questions about whether or not cannabis should even remain in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), let alone it's absurd placement in Schedule I. In fact, Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), sponsor of HR 689, recently requested that the Administration take steps to drop cannabis from the CSA altogether.

The banking announcement is also significant progress that will actually improve the ability of providers to concentrate on quality of service rather than being forced to deal with the dangerous task of managing a cash-only business. While dispensaries have been found to provide a modest increase in neighborhood safety, the cash-only component remains the top area that has made these businesses vulnerable to burglary and robbery. Additionally, allowing these businesses to utilize banks will make it easier for regulatory bodies to oversee the industry, just like any other type of business. While this progress is truly meaningful, it likely will be limited to just banking access and not address the 280e tax issue that prevents cannabis businesses from taking normal business deductions on their tax filings. Nor is this policy a binding change in law, meaning things could go back at any time. Moreover, the details are still not know, for example, will medical cannabis providers be able to get loans, or just utilize accounts to make deposits and withdrawals from? Those concerns notwithstanding, patients and providers have reason for optimism with this announcement. 

Indeed, binding reform for all federal medical cannabis issues (other than delisting or rescheduling cannabis under the CSA, which can be initiated by the Attorney General) must come from Congressional action. That is why Majority Leader Reid's public support for the therapeutic use of cannabis could prove to be the real game changer. Senator Reid joins a growing list of Members of Congress who are becoming publicly supportive of medical cannabis. With top-ranking leaders in both the Administration and Congress speaking up, it would appear that now more than ever is the time for Congress to pass meaningful reform such as HR 689 or HR 1523.

Yet, with all of this apparent momentum, some in the administration are showing signs of resistance bordering on insubordination. It has been reported the DEA Administrator Michelle Leonhart has called the President's comments "irresponsible" and "a slap in the face to cops." If you recall, Leonhart is the DEA chief who could not say whether or not cannabis or heroin is the more dangerous drug, yet somehow she inexplicably remains in charge of enforcing the nation's drug laws. Another high-ranking DEA official, Chief of Operations James Capra, called the recreational laws of Washington and Colorado “reckless and irresponsible,” not out of any concern for how the laws might effect medical cannabis patients, but simply because they threaten the DEA's culture of enforcement and eradication. The inflammatory rhetoric of Leonhart and Capra matches the fervent crackdown of medical marijuana providers by US Attorneys in certain states, such as California, MontanaWashington, and Michigan.

Clearly there appears to be is a substantial disconnect between Administration leaders like President Obama and AG Holder, and those who execute the laws of the land, such as Leonhart, Capra, and the aforementioned US Attorneys. While many are calling for Obama to fire Leonhart, her replacement would still be charged with enforcing the laws on the books today. Therefore, in order to end the crackdown on state medical cannabis laws, there needs to be legislative action from Congress to address the conflict in a comprehensive manner. With Majority Leader Reid's new-found support and medical cannabis enjoying 85% support in national polls, this change is now actually possible, Congress simply needs to act.