Background: Ever since medical cannabis distribution centers began in California more than 15 years ago, the federal government has targeted them. Americans for Safe Access was formed in 2002 as a response to federal raids in California, which peaked during the last half of the G.W. Bush presidency with more than 200 raids in California alone. Aggressive federal actions were used for years to undermine efforts to implement state law through the establishment of localized distribution centers. Partly because of President Obama’s campaign promises to de-prioritize federal enforcement of medical cannabis, partly because of the overwhelming scientific evidence of medical efficacy, and partly because of popular acceptance and pressure from patient advocates, the federal raids of dispensaries have dropped precipitously.

Findings: Aggressive SWAT-style raids on dispensaries are harmful not only to medical cannabis patients and providers, but also for the surrounding communities that are inevitably terrorized by such enforcement actions. Federal agents, often with the help of local or state law enforcement, will raid dispensaries to seize cannabis, money, growing equipment, patient and financial records, as well as other property, but do not always make arrests. As harmful as raids are, putting countless medical cannabis providers out of business, federal prosecution is even more harmful, due to the lack of a defense in federal court. And, although the federal government has decreased the intensity of its raids, they are still occurring.

Position: If medical cannabis is to be dealt with as the public health issue it is, there must be a different approach taken to enforcement of the law. First, and foremost, the federal government must cease enforcement against clearly established medical cannabis distribution centers and leave such enforcement to local and state officials. Second, local and state officials should emphasize civil enforcement over the much more aggressive and harmful criminal enforcement. To the extent that medical cannabis distribution centers violate local land use laws or fail to comply with state law, those violations should not be handled in state criminal court, but in civil court with the use of remedies such as fines and injunctions.