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Obama Administration Steps Up Its Rhetoric In Medical Marijuana States

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director May 4, 2011

    The Obama administration’s position on medical marijuana, circa 2009 (via the Ogden memo to all United States attorneys):

    “The prosecution of significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, and the disruption of illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking networks continues to be a core priority in the Department’s efforts against narcotics and dangerous drugs, and the Department’s investigative and prosecutorial resources should be directed towards these objectives. As a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

    The Obama administration’s position on medical marijuana, circa 2011 (via the May 2, 2011 letter sent from the office of the United States Attorney, District of Arizona, to the Arizona Department of Health Services re: the implementation of the voter-approved Medical Marijuana Program):

    “The United States Attorneys Office … will vigorously prosecute individuals and organizations that participate in the unlawful manufacturing, distribution and marketing activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.”

    A lot can change in two years — including the administration’s attitude toward the state-authorized use and distribution of cannabis for medical purposes.

    In April, NORML blogged about the U.S. Department of Justice, particularly U.S. Attorneys Jenny Durkan of Seattle and Michael Ormsby of Spokane, threatening “civil and criminal legal remedies” (read: sanctions) against Washington state citizens, including state employees, who assist with or engage in the production or distribution of medical cannabis, “even if such activities are permitted under state law.” The U.S. Attorneys’ threats came in response to an inquiry from Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, who most likely was seeking ‘political cover’ so that she could publicly ‘justify’ her veto of legislation (SB 5073) that sought to license and regulate the dispensing of medical cannabis to qualified persons, and would have enacted additional legal protections for patients who voluntarily participated in a statewide registry. The threats worked; Gov. Gregoire cited them in her veto statement Friday.

    In fact, the threats worked so well, that in recent days U.S. Attorneys in other states with active medical marijuana programs have begun issuing similar menacing statements.

    Last week in Colorado, where state regulators have licensed over 800 state-licensed medical cannabis dispensaries, U.S. Attorney John Walsh sent a letter to the state’s Attorney General alleging that the federal Justice Department will “vigorously” prosecute individuals or organizations engaged in “unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.” A spokesman for Walsh’s office adds, “In the eye of the federal government, there’s only one type of marijuana. And marijuana is a Schedule I controlled [federally prohibited] substance.”

    Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke fired off a similarly worded letter this week to Will Humble, the director of the state Department of Health Services, which is overseeing the implementation of Proposition 203. Under the law, which was approved by voters last fall and was enacted on April 15, the state must register qualified patients who have a doctor’s recommendation for cannabis and also license dispensaries to provide it to them. However, according to Burke, said dispensaries that are compliant with the state’s law will “not [be] protect[ed] from [federal] criminal prosecution, asset forfeiture, and other civil penalties.”

    Finally, in Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced this week that he is suspending the state’s nascent medical marijuana distribution program, set to begin this June. In March, the representatives from the Rhode Island Department of Health selected three applicants to operate the state’s first-ever, government licensed medical cannabis dispensaries. (The dispensaries program was initially approved by lawmakers in 2009, but the winning applicants were not decided upon until two years later.) Predictably, Chafee’s abrupt change of heart came after receiving a hand-delivered letter from U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha Friday threatening to prosecute civilly and/or criminally those involved in the dispensary program.

    So what’s the impetus for the Obama administration’s sudden decision to play rhetorical hard ball? NORML Outreach Coordinator and podcaster Russ Belville speculates:

    “Mr. Obama’s … true intention is to stifle the development of any viable legal cannabis distribution industry. By sending threat letters to Rhode Island and Arizona, states that have created clear and unambiguous laws for medical cannabis providers to follow, it is obvious that Mr. Obama isn’t opposed to medical cannabis, per se, but terribly opposed to medical cannabusiness.

    Belville adds: “If (medical cannabusiness) establish (themselves), people will become accustomed to safe, secure, well-run businesses that deliver consistent, reliable, tested cannabis products. They’ll appreciate the way these places revitalize sagging economies, provide jobs, and contribute taxes to budget-starved localities. They’ll realize all the scaremongering by the government about what would happen if marijuana was legal, even for sick people, was hysterical propaganda. [And] they’ll begin to wonder why we don’t just legalize cannabis for everyone, create more jobs, raise more revenue, and use these established businesses as the distribution points.”

    133 Responses to “Obama Administration Steps Up Its Rhetoric In Medical Marijuana States”

    1. Nora Garriga says:

      President Obama has officially lost my vote. Likewise, any one who opposes marijuana reform will not get my vote!

    2. Cheacheachea says:

      make it illegal for federal agencies to prosecute MMJ patients. simple.

    3. Matt Buompensiero says:

      “it is obvious that Mr. Obama isn’t opposed to medical cannabis, per se, but terribly opposed to medical cannabusiness.”

      Russ, I agree with the vast majority of what you say. However I must add my 2 cents and say that Obama IS against MMJ. Don’t give this “man” any credit. He obviously thinks of patients like me as terrorists.

      [Editor’s note: Claiming that the feds and Obama treat patients like terrorists is a ridiculous thing to write. Patients, as compared to a few large retail sellers and growers, are NOT arrested and harassed by the feds.]

    4. Robyn Lowry says:

      The only ‘Refer Madness I see are the politicians that are SO SCARED to make any change and scared to make a stand for reform and change. Something so Simple ,growable and that ALREADY has A list of Good things that come from hemp, It is a SLAP in the Face to be told Hey Your dying and if you have any hope to live we must almost KILL YOU with Radiation But the only relief from it we won’t let you have BECAUSE IT WORKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    5. People got greedy…..

    6. Jason says:

      time to simply write the president and bug the crap out of him.

    7. Ned says:

      When CA legalized mmj and dispensaries began operating, the Feds raided them as CA state officials mostly stood back. However despite Feds efforts to quash dispensaries they lost the PR war badly and backed off. The battle then moved to localities, some favorable, many not. CA state politicians began to feel safe advocating for mmj. Politicians in other states do not yet feel confident about sticking their necks out for mmj. the Feds sensed an opportunity to get big mileage from strong threats, which are in many ways bluffs. But most state politicians A. aren’t super motivated to push for mmj B don’t really understand that federal capacity to prevail depends heavily on state cooperation. Were states to call the federal bluff with legalization etc, and withdrawal of states resources, the feds would then be forced to see if they could engage in a few high profile harsh prosecutions to see if they could scare away all the operators that they don’t have the resources to prosecute.

      How can we get state officials to call the feds bluff? Unfortunately an unlucky few would be targeted and pay a very high price but the feds simply can’t get them all or even more than a few.

    8. Sure let the mexicans make all the money on suppling all the cannibis they sure are making a killing at it now.

    9. jh says:

      vote Ron Paul. he is anti drug war.

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