It has been nearly seven weeks since voters in Colorado and Washington made history, enacting at the ballot box unprecedented measures legalizing the adult possession on cannabis. Yet during this time, federal officials have largely remained silent.
One week ago, US Attorney General Eric Holder cryptically told Bloomberg News that the administration will formally announce its intentions “relatively soon,” but added no further details. Most recently, on Friday, President Obama told ABC News’ Barbara Walters: “It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal. … We’ve got bigger fish to fry.” Of course, federal officials do not target minor marijuana offenders now — so the President’s statement provides little clarity as to what actions the Administration may take going forward as Colorado and Washington begin implementing broader regulatory reforms, including measures to license proprietors to commercially produce and sell cannabis to adults.
Today, in Alternet.org, I speculate as to what actions the Administration may take — and what actions they may not take — in the coming weeks as state lawmakers work toward the full implementation of Colorado and Washington’s newly enacted marijuana laws. An excerpt from this commentary appears below.
Will Obama Go After Legal Pot in Washington and Colorado?
With public opinion firmly behind the will of the voters, is it realistic to think that the Obama Justice Department will take action to try and nullify Colorado and Washington’s legalization laws? It’s possible, but it may not be as likely as some think.
For starters, states are not mandated under the US Controlled Substances Act to criminalize marijuana or to arrest and prosecute adult cannabis consumers and the federal government cannot compel prosecutors in Colorado or Washington to do so. The Justice Department and the US Drug Enforcement Administration could, theoretically, choose to selectively prosecute those individuals in Colorado and Washington who possess or grow quantities of plant that are compliant with state law. But such a scenario is hardly plausible. The federal government lacks the manpower and the public support – and therefore the political will – to engage in such behavior and this reality is unlikely to change any time soon. As acknowledged by former congressman and ex-DEA director Asa Hutchinson at a recent CATO Institute forum on the subject, the federal government never has prosecuted people for possessing an ounce of marijuana and it is not about to start doing so now.
By contrast, the Obama administration may attempt to actively prohibit states from allowing for the above-ground, licensed production and sale of cannabis by authorized proprietors. Justice Department officials could theoretically do so by either bringing a legal challenge against the states, by threatening local officials, or by proposing to withhold federal funding. But none of these actions are assured. Here’s why.
To date, the Obama administration has done little to interfere with the state-approved production and licensed distribution of medical marijuana in those states that explicitly license and regulate this activity — specifically in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, New Jersey, and New Mexico. (In recent days, some of the first state-approved dispensaries opened for business in Arizona and New Jersey. In coming months, licensed dispensaries are also anticipated to open their doors to the public in Vermont as well as the District of Columbia. **AUTHOR’S NOTE: By contrast, the Justice Department has taken actions to aggressively close operations in California, Oregon, Montana, and Washington — though none of these states explicitly license dispensaries.**) In Colorado – where the state has licensed several hundreds of cannabis dispensaries and oversees “seed to sale” regulations governing the plant’s production and distribution – federal officials have yet to either file suit or threaten any of the state regulators who oversee the program. In response to a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who sought to invalidate the state’s 2010 medical cannabis law, lawyers for the federal government affirmed that the administration had never engaged in such strong-arm tactics and did not intend to.
The federal judge in the case agreed. She rejected Gov. Brewer’s legal arguments that the operation of state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries was preempted by federal law or put state employees at risk for federal prosecution, determining “[T]he Complaint does not detail any history of prosecution of state employees for participation in state medical marijuana licensing schemes [and] fails to establish that Plaintiffs are subject to a genuine threat of imminent prosecution and consequently, the Complaint does not meet the constitutional requirements for ripeness.”
A Maricopa County (AZ) Superior Court ruling from earlier this month further affirms that states possess the legal authority to regulate the legal distribution of cannabis, at least in some specific instances, without running afoul of federal anti-drug laws. In the case before the Court, White Mountain Health Center, Inc. v. Maricopa County, Judge Michael Gordon determined that the federal Controlled Substances Act did not preempt Arizona’s efforts to authorize “the local cultivation, sale, and use, of medical marijuana.” Writing for the Court, Judge Gordon declared that nothing in Arizona’s law circumvents federal law since Justice Department officials could still continue to locally enforce the Controlled Substances Act. In fact, Judge Gordon suggested that the new law “affirmatively provides a roadmap for federal enforcement of the CSA, if they so wished to” since the statute requires patients and proprietors to register their activities with the state. He concluded: “The Court rejects … arguments that the [law] violates public policy simply because marijuana use and possession violate federal law. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation permitting the use of marijuana in whole or in part. The Court will not rule that Arizona, having sided with the ever-growing minority of States, and having limited it to medical use, has violated public policy.”
Some legal experts, including law professor Robert Mikos of Vanderbilt University Law School, suggest an additional legal theory as to why Colorado and Washington’s proposed regulatory schemes may not be subject to federal preemption. Speaking at a recent CATO Institute sponsored forum, Mikos suggested that the newly enacted state legalization laws do not violate the spirit or the intent of the Controlled Substances Act because the federal law exists for the expressed purpose of limiting the consumption of certain substances by the public, particularly young people. One can argue that the proposed statewide regulatory schemes in Colorado and Washington – which impose age restrictions for buyers and limit sellers to those authorized by the state – are intended to serve a similar purpose. Further, the proposed state programs, “do not stop federal authorities from sanctioning registrants.” Notably, Superior Court Judge Gordon specifically highlighted these arguments in his decision to uphold Arizona’s law and to reject claims that it positively conflicted with federal law.
“No one can argue that the federal government’s ability to enforce the CSA is impaired to the slightest degree [by Arizona’s medical marijuana law],” he opined. “Instead of frustrating the CSA’s purpose, it is sensible to argue that the [law] furthers the CSA’s objectives in combating drug abuse and the illegitimate trafficking of controlled substances.”
You can read the full text of my commentary here.
Michael Sherer at Time Magazine has posted online today a particularly astute examination of the Obama administration’s flip-flop on marijuana policy. Below are some key excerpts. Michael’s full article appears in the newsstand edition of Time.
[T]he Obama Administration is cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries and growers just as harshly as the Administration of George W. Bush did. In 2011, the Department of Justice revised its guidance to U.S. Attorneys, allowing them to target any medical marijuana activity except for ill patients and their immediate caregivers. The Drug Enforcement Administration has made it clear that “medical marijuana is not medicine,” and even called it a “mortal danger.” … In many states, U.S. Attorneys have advised state and local officials to back away from plans to create rules and regulations that would codify the medical pot industry, in some cases raising the possibility that lawmakers could be prosecuted for promoting drug use that is legal under state law.
… Over the last few weeks, I have talked with nearly a dozen people in the medical marijuana business, three U.S. Attorneys, White House officials and local officials who oppose the federal crackdown for a story that will appear in this week’s newsstand issue of TIME. The answer on the ground is, predictably, far more complicated than either medical marijuana advocates or the Obama Administration is willing to describe. And it all comes down to this: Despite Obama’s promises during the 2008 campaign, federal prosecutors have lost faith in the ability of state and local officials to control a booming commercial industry for a drug that is still illegal to grow, possess or sell under federal law. As a result, a once broad exemption from prosecution for medical marijuana providers in state where it’s legal has been narrowed to a tiny one. … [T]he nation is left with an uneasy status quo: The federal government is not trying to eliminate medical marijuana altogether, but it has decided that it cannot stand for the commercialization or large scale production of marijuana for the stated purpose of helping the sick, even when that production is technically within the bounds of state law.
…[I]n a different world, the federal government might work with state and local officials to more tightly regulate the growing of marijuana for medical purposes. But since pot is illegal under all circumstances under federal law, the opposite has been happening. Attempts, particularly in California, to more tightly regulate and thereby provide greater legal protection for the drug, have been shut down by the federal government.
And so, medical marijuana is left in a no man’s land. Individual sick users are safe from prosecution, but they are likely to find it harder in the coming months to get the drug. Growers and dispensers are not protected by state law from federal prosecution, especially if they become large enough to get noticed by federal investigators. And the likely result is that more of the medical marijuana industry will be pushed underground in the coming years, making it more difficult for local officials to track the business. This arguably will only increase some criminal activity, as large amounts of money and a very profitable commodity move through the system by way of small-time dealers working without sophisticated security systems.
…“What this really screams for a cohesive national policy.”
But there is no such policy on the horizon. Obama has shown little interest in elevating the issue. Some in federal law enforcement–and at the Office of National Drug Control Policy–hope that the advent of new pharmaceutical replacements for grown medical marijuana, like the Canadian drug Sativex, [Editor's note: Sativex is a British drug, not a Canadian manufactured product -- though it is legal by prescription in Canada.] will make the entire issue moot in the coming decade. But that looks unlikely in the short term, given the lack of concern among the general public with medical marijuana. A 2010 poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press found that 73% say they favor “their state allowing the sale and use of marijuana for medical purposes if it is prescribed by a doctor.”
In other words, don’t hold your breath for clarity anytime soon. The haze is here to stay.
The most widely read political website, Politico.com, covers the now clear controversy the Obama Administration has found itself in regarding its semi-articulated medical cannabis policy position post hundreds of law enforcement closures of medical cannabis dispensaries since the fall of 2011.
Beyond bringing this political quandary regarding medical cannabis to a well informed readership, what is notable about the reportage is that buried in the piece is an apparent recent confrontation between cannabis law reform proponent Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) and President Obama at a swank fundraiser directly across the street from NORML’s offices at the St. Regis Hotel where Frank confronted the President about the disparity between his rhetoric in favor of medical cannabis and the recent law enforcement actions of his Justice Department.
Frustratingly, the President claims that he does not know what is going on in states like California, Washington, Montana and Colorado regarding DOJ’s efforts to seriously retard patient access to medical cannabis.
Obama sees his history on medical marijuana enforcement differently. The president was again asked about the Justice Department medical marijuana policy at a high-dollar fundraiser at Washington’s St. Regis Hotel filled with liberal mega-donors who paid $35,800 a plate to attend. According to a source with knowledge of the event, which was closed to reporters, Obama reportedly said that the DOJ was raiding purely on a case-by-case basis.
Frank says he got a frustrating response when he buttonholed Obama to complain that this wasn’t true: Obama told the Massachusetts Democrat that, to the best of his knowledge, the 2009 hands-off policy remained in place.
Frank told POLITICO that he’s preparing to send the president press clippings to demonstrate that raids continue across the country.
The tide has turned on the issue — beyond medical marijuana, there’s growing support for full legalization — Frank said, and there’s no reason the president should be lagging behind.
“Obama now lags Pat Robertson in a sensible approach to marijuana,” said Frank, referring to the conservative evangelical leader’s recent criticism of the drug war.
Obama’s pot promise a pipe dream?
By: Byron Tau
April 21, 2012
President Barack Obama has turned out to be a real buzzkill.
Back when he was running in 2008, Obama said he supported the “basic concept of using medical marijuana for the same purposes and with the same controls as other drugs” and that he was “not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws.” He didn’t go farther. But he also didn’t do anything to dissuade speculation among medical marijuana proponents who took this as a sign that the man headed to the Oval Office was on their side.
Four years later, the raids on drug dispensaries have kept up — despite a Justice Department memo formalizing low-enforcement priority instructions from Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced in a March 2009 press conference that the raids would stop on distributors who were in compliance with state and local law. Obama never said anything about supporting legalization or decriminalization, but his medical marijuana statements were enough to get him heralded by some in the larger pro-pot community as the best hope for chipping away at the decades-long drug war.
But the hopes that Obama would be a kinder, gentler, more tolerant drug warrior have gone up in smoke.
“I’m very disappointed,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a longtime supporter of marijuana legalization and medical marijuana, told POLITICO. “They look more like the Bush administration than the Clinton administration.”
The dejected medical marijuana supporters are hardly alone. For many in 2008, candidate Obama was like a political Rorschach test: They projected strong progressive positions about everything from legalizing gay marriage to ending all military involvement onto a candidate who never said he agreed with them — but also never explicitly said he didn’t.
Now they’re looking at four years into the Obama administration and wondering where they went wrong.
Read the rest at Politico
A federal judge in Sacramento this week dismissed a federal lawsuit filed in November by members of the NORML Legal Committee against the US Department of Justice, US Attorney General Eric Holder, and DEA Director Michele Leonhart. The lawsuit (read it here), one of four filed simultaneously in the state’s four federal districts, argues that the Justice Department’s ongoing crackdown against medical marijuana providers and distributors in California is in violation of the Ninth, Tenth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution because the use of cannabis therapeutically is a fundamental right. Petitioners also argue, using the theory of judicial estoppel, that the Justice Department had previously affirmed in public memos and in statements made in federal court that it would no longer use federal resources to prosecute cannabis patients or providers who are compliant with state law.
On Wednesday, US District Judge Garland Burrell, Jr., rejected those arguments and and granted the respondent’s dismissal motion. He denied petitioners request for public hearings prior to making his ruling.
Judge Burrell rejected plaintiffs’ Ninth and Tenth Amendment challenges, finding: “Since the Supreme Court has held the that CSA’s (federal Controlled Substances Act) categorical prohibition of the possession, manufacturing, and distribution of marijuana does not exceed Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause (Article I Section 8, Clause 3 of the US Constitution), plaintiffs do not have a viable …. claim.”
He also rejected plaintiffs’ equal protection arguments, finding that the Justice Department’s actions in California mimic efforts the federal government has taken against “similarly situated individuals” elsewhere. Judge Burrell also cited court rulings finding that defendants in previous challenges have failed to meet the “heavy burden of proving the irrationality of the schedule I classification of marijuana.”
Finally, Judge Burrell dismissed plaintiff’s judicial estoppel clam, which argues that defendants’ “recent crackdown … against medical cannabis patients flouts the representations made on the record by the Department of Justice” in public memos and statements in court. Responding to this challenge, Judge Burrell determined, “Since judicial estoppel does not apply unless ‘a party’s later position [is] ‘clearly inconsistent with its earlier position,’ and the Ogden memo does not contain a promise not to enforce the CSA, defendants’ enforcement of the CSA is not inconsistent.”
Commenting on the ruling, Attorney David Michael of San Francisco, who along with Matt Kumin and Alan Silber were the lead attorneys in these four challenges, said “We are disappointed, but not discouraged, that the District Courts have thus far denied us the relief we had sought. They are constrained by existing precedent, and the result was not unexpected. It is the Ninth Circuit where we hope to find a receptive audience, and, with the Lawrence v. Texas decision, we may also have a more receptive audience in the Supreme Court, should the issue go there.”
Judges for the Ninth Circuit had previously determined in Raich v Gonzalez: “For now, federal law is blind to the wisdom of a future day when the right to use medical marijuana to alleviate excruciating pain may be deemed fundamental. Although that day has not yet dawned, … (it) may be upon us sooner than expected.”
[Editor's note: This post is excerpted from this week's forthcoming NORML weekly media advisory. To have NORML's news alerts and legislative advisories delivered straight to your in-box, sign up here.]
Democrat Gov. Jack Markell has abruptly halted plans to implement legislation passed in 2011 that allows qualified patients to obtain marijuana from state-licensed facilities.
Governor Markell had initially signed the law, Senate Bill 17, The Delaware Medical Marijuana Act, last May. Under the law, patients with a qualifying illness may legally possess up to six ounces of cannabis, provided they obtained it from a state-licensed, not-for-profit ‘compassion center.’ State regulators were anticipated to begin licensing marijuana producers and distributors later this year.
On Friday, Gov. Markell announced that he was suspending the program because his office had received a letter from the Obama Justice Department alleging that it would subject those licensed under the law, as well as public servants, to federal criminal prosecution.
States the letter, authored by US Attorney Charles M. Oberly III, “[G]rowing, distributing and possessing marijuana, in any capacity, other than as part of a federally authorized research program, is a violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities. Moreover, those who engage in financial transactions involving the proceeds of such activities may also be in violation of federal money laundering statutes.”
The letter further threatens, “State employees who conduct activities mandated by the Delaware Medical Marijuana Act are not immune from liability under” the Controlled Substances Act.
Justice Department officials sent similar letters to lawmakers and governors in states considering related legislation last spring. Shortly after receiving the letters, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed legislation that sought to allow for licensed cannabis dispensaries in that state. Soon thereafter, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee also nixed regulations allowing for the state-licensed production and distribution of cannabis.
In a statement issued by Gov. Markell on Friday, he claimed that the federal government left him with no choice but to suspend the law’s implementation. “To do otherwise would put our state employees in legal jeopardy, and I will not do that,” he said.
In response to the Governor’s actions, sponsors of the law have suggested amending the Medical Marijuana Act to allow for qualified patients to cultivate cannabis at home, a practice that is presently allowed under state law in 14 other states.
To date, three states – Colorado, Maine, and New Mexico – have issued licenses to allow for the state-sanctioned production and distribution of cannabis. So far, programs in those states have operated largely without federal interference.
Similar licensing legislation approved in recent years in Arizona, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington, DC has yet to be implemented by local lawmakers.