(Special from The Daily Grito)
Back in 2008, Candidate Obama thought that medical marijuana as a treatment for glaucoma or cancer was legitimate – much like a doctor prescribes morphine for an ill patient. He also said that he would not devote Justice Department resources to the medical cannabis issue because he didn’t want to circumvent state law on the matter. At the time, then Senator Obama hinted that he wanted federal law enforcement to focus on violent crime and thwarting terrorism … among other things.
Two years ago, fresh in office, the Obama Administration announced its plan to call on federal prosecutors to respect state marijuana laws. In October 2009, Phillip Smith of StoptheDrugWar.org wrote:
“In a new federal medical marijuana policy memo issued this morning to the DEA, FBI, and US Attorneys around the country, the Justice Department told prosecutors that medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal should not be targeted for federal prosecution. The memo formalizes statements made by Attorney General Eric Holder in February and March that going after pot-smoking patients and their suppliers would not be a high Justice Department priority. The memo marks a sharp break with federal policy under the Clinton and Bush administrations, both of which aggressively targeted medical marijuana operations, especially in California, the state that has the broadest law and the highest number of medical marijuana patients.”
However, in a strange turn of events earlier this month, four California U.S. attorneys announced a new crackdown on medical marijuana. The Administration now asserts that large marijuana dispensaries in California are profiteers and have hijacked the state’s medical marijuana law. The IRS also joined in, claiming that medical marijuana dispensaries owe back taxes because they were taking illicit deductions. And the crackdown even extends to media entities advertising for medical marijuana dispensaries.
The recent about-face actions by the Administration are leaving medical marijuana advocates perplexed, especially as President Obama ventured west for fundraisers in California and Colorado, two states that have had legalized medical cannabis for over a decade.
On Monday, the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) announced a planned protest against the Department of Justice’s crackdown outside of the San Francisco W Hotel – right where President Obama was headlining a fundraiser. Some 1,000 protesters showed up.
“With the federal budget on empty, the economy in disarray, our prisons overflowing, and prohibition-related violence raging across the border, it’s an outrageous misuse of federal resources to wage war on medical marijuana,” California NORML director Dale Gieringer charged during an interview with The Daily Grito. “Federal anti-drug bureaucrats are afraid because the dispensaries are proving that it’s possible for marijuana to become a safe, legal, tax-paying industry and so expose their own last-century policies as bankrupt and obsolete.”
Last week, trustees of the California Medical Association (CMA) adopted a new position calling for legalization of marijuana, even though there are disputes as to how effective a treatment it is. Dr. Donald Lyman, a Sacramento physician who wrote the new policy for the CMA told The Los Angeles Times: “It is an open question whether cannabis is useful or not. That question can only be answered when it is legalized and more research is done. Then, and only then, can we know what it is useful for.”
A Gallup poll released this month also found that a plurality of Americans support marijuana legalization. Polling for medicinal uses of cannabis consistently shows higher favorability ratings. National support for medical marijuana is at about 70%.
And in a rough economy, medical cannabis and its associated business have been thriving. Nationally, the medical marijuana market is estimated at $1.7 billion. Last year in Oakland, California, the City Council granted industrial cultivation licenses to four businesses hoping that revenue from the growers could net $38 million in annual tax revenue.
Some observers argue that President Obama would not suffer much political fallout from scaling back the medical marijuana crackdown and/or abandoning it altogether given public support for herb use.
Dr. David Bearman, an expert clinician in the medical cannabis field, tells the The Daily Grito that he’s “puzzled by the actions of the administration and the President” and noted that there are a few things that the President could have done to signal he is in congruence with public opinion. According to Dr. Bearman, the President should have stayed away from appointing Bush administration holdover, Michele Leonhart to head up the DEA. Bearman also suggested that President Obama could have asked that his Drug Czar meet with the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine and that the administration follow the recommendation of the American Medical Association to review its classification of marijuana.
Given the support for legalization of marijuana, the Administration could prioritize law enforcement efforts in a way that doesn’t harm a growing and fairly legitimate industry. But, if the President refuses, he risks isolating those within his base who expected much more progressive drug policies.