Pubdate: Thu, 20 Oct 2011
Source: Miami New Times (FL)
Copyright: 2011 New Times, Inc.
Author: Ray Stern


In a Strange About-Face, the President Tries to Hack Medical Marijuana
Off at the Knees.

The new federal crackdown on medical marijuana announced on October 7
by the four California U.S. Attorneys sent chills throughout the
industry. It was a stunning reversal by the Obama administration.

Only two years ago, Deputy U.S. Attorney General David Ogden wrote his
infamous "Ogden Memo," announcing the feds wouldn't bother businesses
in compliance with their own state laws. It proved a dose of
Miracle-Gro to California, where pot-selling stores multiplied since
voters approved the state's 1996 medical marijuana law. By late last
year, California reportedly had more dispensaries than Starbucks outlets.

Colorado also made it legal in 2000, seeing a similar explosion of new
storefronts. The same thing was happening to varying degrees in 16
states, from Arizona to Washington, New Jersey to Delaware.

But the feds' tolerance wasn't quite what it seemed. While legal weed
grew to an estimated $10 to $100 billion industry -- no one's quite
sure of the exact figure -- activists noticed an alarming
undercurrent to the rhetoric: Raids on growers and dispensaries
actually increased under Obama.

As hundreds of thousands of state-approved, doctor-recommended
patients happily bought their medicine in well-lit stores from
knowledgeable "budtenders," the ire of cops and prohibitionists rose.

The first sign of Obama's subterfuge came in late 2010, as California
prepared to vote on a ballot proposition that would have legalized
growing and possessing small amounts of marijuana for anyone over the
age of 21. Under pressure from teetotalers -- nine former Drug
Enforcement Agency chiefs begged Obama to oppose the measure --
Attorney General Eric Holder said that it didn't matter what
Californians thought. The feds would continue to bust people
regardless of the election.

The measure got 46 percent of the vote, but not enough to pass. Yet
the medical side of things kept going strong -- too strong for Obama.

When the Oakland City Council prepared to authorize large-scale
cultivation centers, Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for California's
Northern District, issued the first in what would become a series of
letters from her fellow attorneys general. She reminded residents --
in no uncertain terms -- that marijuana was still criminalized under
federal law, considered equal to heroin or meth, irrespective of its
medicinal value.

Nor did she care what California law said. Her "core priority" would
be to prosecute "business enterprises that unlawfully market and sell
marijuana" under federal law.

Over the next few months, attorneys general from Maine to Washington
wrote their own increasingly menacing letters. In Washington, the feds
even threatened to arrest state workers who helped facilitate the industry.

Then the Obama administration released a new letter to "clarify"
Ogden's memo. Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole verified the
about-face: The only people safe from arrest were the "seriously ill"
patients and their caregivers.

Everyone else? Be forewarned.

The letter didn't just target those directly involved in the trade.
Cole was also threatening supporting industries -- read: banks --
with money laundering charges for dealing in the proceeds from
marijuana. Obama had launched a full-on attack on the industries
essential to any functioning enterprise.

Banks responded by canceling their weed-related accounts. "Perhaps
there may be a few financial institutions here or there that are still
accepting accounts," says Caroline Joy, a spokeswoman for the Colorado
Bankers Association. "Those facilities don't want to reveal who they

The president's push grew louder last month. The U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco
and Firearms bureau warned medical-marijuana patients that they
couldn't legally use pot and own or buy guns.

Then came a one-two punch.

On October 5, the IRS ruled that one of the largest California
dispensaries, Harborside Health Center, owed $2.5 million in taxes
because federal law precluded standard deductions for businesses
engaging in illegal activity.

In other words, Obama was not only blowing off state laws. He was
declaring that legal businesses were now nothing more than criminal
rackets. And he was carving away every tool they needed to function.

Harborside's owner said he'd go out of business if the IRS didn't
reverse course. Dispensaries nationwide saw it as a crippling decision.

Then came another blow two days later: The bombshell dropped by
California's four U.S. Attorneys.

They were now going after people who leased stores and land to the pot
industry. Violators were given 45 days to close doors, uproot plants,
and kick out renters. The penalty for not acting: Seizure of property
and arrest.

Laura Duffy, the U.S attorney from California's Southern District, went
so far as to threaten media with prosecution for taking pot advertising.
(Disclosure: This newspaper accepts such ads.)

There was no doubt about it: Obama was intent on killing an entire
industry -- in the middle of a depression, no less. Left unexplained
was why, especially since he was giving the finger to voters in 16
states just a year before he would face them in his own election.

Democratic strategists were perplexed. Roger Salazar, a California
party consultant, believes the president may be trying to reach out to
a broader base. But that doesn't explain the attack on his own base;
Democrats support medical marijuana at high percentages. It doesn't
even make sense in luring conservatives. With the country in economic
tatters, no one has weed high on their radar.

Except one group, says Salazar: "It's a mystery, I think, it really is,
where the pressure is coming from. My sense is it's coming from law

Certainly Obama's threats are real. He may be loath to jail landlords,
bankers or even dispensary owners. Arresting non-violent,
state-sanctioned businesspeople wouldn't be popular. But his quieter
war of chopping merchants off at the knees through credit and leasing
would ravage the trade. Still, the president has thrown himself into
an uphill fight. There is reason to believe medical marijuana will
persist, despite his betrayal.

Marijuana Rally Is Medicine

Earlier this month, in a timely coincidence, the California Medical
Association's board voted to encourage the feds to legalize marijuana.

Though spokeswoman Molly Weedn emphasizes that the decision by the
doctors' group hinges on a call for more research, a report studied by
the CMA board before its decision makes it clear that "" at the least
"" marijuana shows promise as a medicine.

The CMA's Council on Clinical and Scientific Affairs "has also
concluded that components of medical cannabis may be effective for the
treatment of pain, nausea, anorexia, and other conditions."

The report goes on to say:

"Cannabinoids are presently thought to exhibit their greatest efficacy
when implemented for the management of neuropathic pain, which is a
form of severe and often chronic pain resulting from nerve injury,
disease, or toxicity.

"The University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research
(CMCR) recently reported to the California legislature the results of
a number of studies. Four studies involved the treatment of
neuropathic pain; and all four demonstrated a significant improvement
in pain after cannabis administration."

The doctors note that while using marijuana may contain risks, such as
addiction, they argue that its prohibition may be more dangerous than
the drug itself:

"Under the current prohibition of cannabis, public health is also
affected by increased rates of crime surrounding cannabis cultivation,
sale and use. The California Legislative Analyst's Office estimates
that the incarceration and parole supervision of cannabis offenders
costs the state tens of millions of dollars annually."

Nationally, prohibition burns through billions of dollars in lives
lost to the violence inherent in the black market, the incarceration
of thousands of productive, non-violent Americans, and the lack of
access to a beneficial medicine.

Are lots of people using weed without suffering from a medical
problem? Absolutely. But just because you've heard that half or more
of patients take the drug for "severe and chronic pain" doesn't mean
they're all faking it.

In June, the Institute of Medicine estimated that 116 million
Americans suffer from significant, chronic pain.

As more research comes in showing that pot can be an effective
treatment, and with America's elderly population exploding in the
coming decades, the interest in its medicinal qualities seems only
likely to rise.

The Truth Will Prevail

Ignorance, false propaganda and rank political posturing tend to be
the foundation of the anti-marijuana argument. (Throw in bureaucratic
turf protection as well. The DEA, for example, would need fewer agents
if pot was decriminalized nationwide.)

A new Gallup poll shows that a record 50 percent of Americans believe
marijuana -- and not just the medical kind -- should be legalized.
The poll follows a continuing trend over the past several years of
increasing support for legalization.

Obama has chosen to swim against the tide. But there's reason to
believe his fight is about politics, not public safety. If this were
about safety, alcohol would be his primary target.

Politics cause both sides to fudge the truth. Yet prohibitionists and
the government have been particularly egregious. The government is
using taxpayer dollars to prop up its side, with the U.S. Justice
Department's 64-page booklet, "Speaking Out About Drug Legalization,"
being a prime example.

The booklet, distributed in print and online, states that "smoked
marijuana is not scientifically approved medicine." Forget that by
labeling it a drug on par with heroin, the DEA is curtailing the
proper study of marijuana, since it prevents even scientists from
possessing it for research. The publicly funded propaganda also flies
in the face of the opinion of doctors, who see pot's potential as medicine.

It's a strategy that's trickled to states with functionaries unhappy
about executing the voters' will. Last December in Arizona, Will
Humble, the state's Department of Health Services director, held a
news conference about the state's new Medical Marijuana Act. He took a
moment to remind reporters that more than 1,000 Arizonans died last
year from accidental overdoses from prescription drugs.

But when asked how many of those died from marijuana, Humble refused
to answer -- to chuckles from the audience. He referred the question
to his chief medical officer, Laura Nelson, who would only say she'd
"have to do the research on that" before she could answer.

Then Nelson began stammering about the danger of marijuana due to "car
accidents" -- though she had done no research on that, either.

The CMA's new report, interestingly enough, sheds light on statements
like Nelson's. It says that prohibitionists often make unsubstantiated
claims about car crashes or other purported harms. Studies disagree on
its risks to motorists, though there's no question that booze
increases the chances of a crash, the report says. Moreover, simulated
driving tests reveal that pot smokers overestimate their degree of
impairment and "compensate effectively."

If one were a cynic, one might also view U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy's
threat to target advertising as a less than subtle threat to control
the debate.

True: Federal law prohibits advertising illegal drugs. Google, for
example, agreed to pay a $500 million fine this summer for taking online
ads promoting "rogue" Canadian pharmacies.

But pot dispensaries are legal businesses within their states. Under
Duffy's threat, the feds will have their say, while the pro-pot
message would be erased from public view.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the conservative Criminal Justice
Legal Foundation, tells New Times that Duffy's threat gave him the

"They're on much thinner ice going after the newspaper," says
Scheidegger, who otherwise believes the feds should enforce its own
laws against marijuana. "... Maybe there is a political strategy."

It's called the "shut them up" strategy.

There Will Be Pushback

Federal law is, for now, on the side of the prohibitionists.

Scheidegger downplays the state victories handed to medical marijuana.
He says if the American people want to change the law, they need to
encourage Congress to do so.

Yet that ignores a basic political reality: It's extremely difficult
for any politician to stand up for marijuana. He or she will be
quickly painted as pro-pothead.

Like women's suffrage, the medical marijuana movement has -- in ten
states, anyway -- benefited by the direct democracy of citizens
initiatives. These elections have taken the pulse of voters in a way
that congressional elections cannot.

In six other states and Washington D.C., medical marijuana was
legalized by local lawmakers. Other states are bound to vote in favor
of decriminalizing pot in the next few years in spite of federal laws.

Phoenix attorney Ty Taber sees it as a major states' rights issue.
"Basically, the citizens of these states ... they want marijuana
legalized," he says. If Obama wants to play hardball, he says, "You're
going to get pushback."

Taber represents Compassion First, a company that helps set up
dispensaries. The firm sued Arizona after Governor Jan Brewer, in
blatant defiance of voters' wishes, derailed the dispensary portion of
Arizona's new law by instructing the Department of Health to reject
applications. She simultaneously sued the federal government, asking a
judge to rule on whether the state's new law was legal. (Ironically,
the U.S. Justice Department's civil department is defending against
the lawsuit -- and if the feds win, Arizona might just get its first

Compassion First wants the program implemented as Arizonans intended,
and to remove blockades Brewer has thrown in its path. For instance,
Arizona requires dispensary owners to have been residents for at least
three years.

But the point isn't so much whether or not the company will win its
lawsuit or not -- it's that they're fighting back, and they're not

Across the country, advocates are returning fire of their own in the
court system. Which means Obama won't be able to do battle by the
relatively cheap means of letters and threats. He'll likely end up
burning through millions of dollars in litigation -- money he doesn't

Taber thinks the president may have underestimated his foe. "The
people behind this marijuana movement -- they're committed. They are
zealots. And these are smart people -- not stoners saying, 'Hey dude,
pass another slice of pizza.'"

Half-Hearted Crackdowns Don't Work

The latest crackdown will be bad for the pot business. No question.
But Obama could be doing much, much more.

He could go after patients. Over the summer, a federal judge ruled the
DEA could peek at the names on Michigan's patient registry. Because
marijuana is illegal under federal law, said Judge Hugh Brenneman Jr.,
patients can't expect privacy.

The feds could also hit pot-tolerant cities. The law doesn't allow
municipal workers to be jailed in such prosecutions, but cities or
counties could be heavily fined just for setting up zoning
requirements for dispensaries.

There's a huge downside to that, of course. Obama will only appear
mean and small for having sickly grandmas arrested. And fining cities
just enrages residents picking up the tab -- the very people the
president will need a year from now.

All of which leaves him fighting at partial speed. That, in turn,
leaves the "zealots" Tyber mentions betting their money and freedom
that even if the feds throw the book at some, it won't be them.

Last week, the feds raided several growing operations in California
and Oregon, including one in Mendocino County that appeared to be
playing by the state rules. But it seems safe to assume that few of
the hundreds of other growers in Mendocino County did not uproot their
crops in response -- just as the hundreds of dispensaries in
California did not immediately close their doors after the feds'
ominous warning on October 7.

The industry seems to be practicing a form of civil disobedience. And
it has tens of thousands of seriously sick people behind it, who will
holler loudly if they're forced back to the black market.

Indeed, there are some signs that Obama's crackdown will be what the
SF Weekly's Chris Roberts calls a "Passive Aggressive" strategy.
Rather than offend Americans with news footage of police raids, Obama
has launched a war of attrition. Landlords, worried the feds will
steal their property, will tell dispensaries to move out. Banks won't
handle money for pot-themed businesses. Dispensaries will be taxed so
heavily they won't be to cover the payroll or pay the electric bill.

Yet it remains to be seen whether federal prosecutors, who undoubtedly
have even more serious criminals with which to contend, are willing
and able to carry out the threat. When Jack Gillund, Melinda Haag's
spokesman, was asked whether her office had the resources to go after
every dispensary or grower who doesn't comply with the 45-day
deadline, he offered a simple reply: "No comment."

Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in
California's Eastern District, says Wagner's goal isn't to shut down
everything. He's focusing on "large, professional, money-making
operations -- the commercial operations."

Horwood also says that it's wrong to call it "Obama's crackdown." She
says the California U.S. Attorneys decided to take action on their own
because the situation has grown out of control among recreational
users. But she acknowledges that they received Obama's blessing.

It's classic political strategy: Send the underlings out to take the
heat, while the bosses hide under their skirts.

Either way, the end result casts Obama as even more zealous than
George W. Bush. Bush threatened owners of dispensary properties in
2007, but never followed up. Meanwhile, Colorado and other states have
seen no similar crackdowns. Only time will tell whether Obama plans to
destroy the entire medical marijuana industry, or merely smack
California around for a bit.

"I'm willing to give the Obama Administration the benefit of the
doubt," says Blair Butterworth, a Democratic consultant in Seattle,
where about 100 dispensaries operate. "In California, they may be
sitting on uncontrollable drug sales. They need to slap some wrists."

It's easy to pick on California, a state known for its excesses. But
"the last thing Obama needs right now is to go to war nationally with
the medical marijuana community," Butterworth says.

Leniency for marijuana users, medical or otherwise, continues to be a
popular Democratic stance, he says. Butterworth is helping the
campaign to put outright legalization on the Washington state ballot
next year. He thinks it's got a good chance.

Of course, a successful election could just tick off the feds even

A Million Patients Can't Be Wrong

An estimated 1 million people in California have obtained a doctor's
recommendation to grow and use marijuana legally.

More than 150,000 medical marijuana patients have registered in
Colorado as of July.

Tens of thousands of patients are registered in the other
weed-friendly states.

If the feds shut down every dispensary in the country, all these
people will still be able to legally possess marijuana -- no matter
where they bought it -- under their state laws.

The only difference is they'll be forced to go back to buying their
weed from Mexican drug cartels, rather than Americans who provide jobs
and pay taxes.

It's akin to the feds saying that Anheuser-Busch can no longer sell
beer; they'd prefer that people only buy from Al Capone.

Hey, wait -- didn't something like that happen? 
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.