Pubdate: Mon, 04 Jan 2016
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Los Angeles Times
Author: Evan Halper


A Year After Congress Decided to End the War on Medical Pot, Federal 
Raids Continue in California.

WASHINGTON - When Congress in effect lifted the federal ban on 
medical marijuana just over a year ago, Californians drove the 
landmark change, which was tucked into a sprawling spending package 
by a liberal lawmaker from the Monterey Peninsula and his 
conservative colleague from Orange County.

A year later, marijuana legalization advocates are conflicted over 
how big a victory the congressional vote, which was repeated last 
month, has turned out to be.

"The number of raids has dropped substantially, though not 
completely," across the country, said Mike Liszewski, government 
affairs director for Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana 
advocacy group. A federal court ruling this past fall, if it is 
upheld, would limit federal agents from targeting all but operations 
that are clearly flouting state law, he noted.

But in California, in particular, federal prosecutors continue to 
pursue cases, in large part because of flaws in the existing state 
medical marijuana law, which all sides agree is long overdue for an 
overhaul. Gov. Jerry Brown has signed three measures to clarify the 
state law, but those won't take effect until 2018.

So for now, the state that was America's birthplace for legal medical 
pot remains at the center of legal disputes as federal prosecutors 
struggle to navigate a murky landscape in which the line between 
healers and drug dealers is not always clear.

The two House members who championed the new approach say prosecutors 
are not following Congress' intent.

"The will of the people is clear: The majority of the states have 
enacted medical marijuana laws, Congress has voted twice now to 
protect those patients, and a federal judge has upheld" the measure, 
Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) wrote in an email. "How many times does the 
Justice Department need to be told to back off before it finally sinks in?"

Farr and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) teamed up in 2014 to 
write the measure that said anyone legally selling medical pot under 
a state law cannot be prosecuted.

Officials from the Justice Department declined to comment, citing 
continued litigation.

Congress has put the department in a pickle, however. Federal law 
still classifies marijuana in the most dangerous category of 
narcotics, alongside heroin and LSD, substances that the law declares 
to be lacking any accepted medical use. Congress has declined to 
change that even as it has approved the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, 
as the provision has come to be known.

The city of Oakland is invoking that amendment in demanding federal 
prosecutors drop their bid to seize marijuana and other assets from 
Harborside Health Center, the nation's largest dispensary, which has 
generated a tax windfall for the cash-strapped city.

Across San Francisco Bay, in Marin County, local officials cheered 
when a federal judge declared in October that the continued 
prosecution of a dispensary was an affront to the new law - only to 
learn last month that prosecutors plan to continue the fight through an appeal.

Complicating matters are the several states that now permit the sale 
of marijuana for recreational use. The Obama administration has opted 
to allow that experiment to continue unabated. So operations in 
California, like Harborside, that target patients seeking the drug to 
treat ailments can still be prosecuted while shops in Denver that 
cater to college students on weekend binges operate freely.

Over the summer, Farr and Rohrabacher accused the Justice Department 
of illegally misappropriating federal money to continue those 
prosecutions, calling on its inspector general to launch an 
investigation. The department has yet to respond.

Federal officials have argued in court that their prosecutions don't 
violate the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment because the occasional bust 
doesn't impede the state from allowing the use of medical marijuana. 
After the judge in the Marin County case rejected that argument as 
"tortured," prosecutors are left with the argument that the sales in 
question are not clearly in compliance with California law, which was 
written very broadly.

"The early medical marijuana laws were Trojan horses designed to 
allow effective legalization for anyone who could fake an ache," said 
Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon 
University in Pittsburgh. "California is in that category."

Even in the case of Harborside, which state and local officials often 
hold up as a gold standard for the medical marijuana business, 
California's loose rules about who is permitted to buy medical pot 
have left the operations a natural target for prosecutors, Caulkins said.

"Harborside is gigantic, and the Justice Department thinks it is not 
providing marijuana just for kids with epilepsy or people with cancer 
or people with HIV," Caulkins said.

States that have more recently adopted medical marijuana provisions 
are not seeing their legitimate medical marijuana businesses targeted 
because they serve a much narrower group of clients, he said.

But the Justice Department's continued pursuit of Harborside is 
riling officials in Oakland. The business pays the city about $1.4 
million annually in taxes, or as Oakland put it in one court filing, 
enough to pay the salaries of a dozen police officers or firefighters.

Advocates are hopeful that it will only be a matter of time before 
the prosecutions subside. California is among several states poised 
to decide this year whether to legalize pot for any adult who chooses 
to purchase it, whether to treat an illness or to just get high. If 
the state adopts rules to regulate a legalized market that satisfy 
the Justice Department - as Colorado and Washington state have done - 
prosecutors will probably move on to other business.

"I've seen no evidence the department is going after anybody doing 
recreational sales in Washington or Colorado," said Douglas Berman, a 
law professor at Ohio State University. "Whatever the law is in a 
given state, prosecutors have decided it is not worth their time or 
energy to go after folks who are in compliance with it."

But until California clarifies its law - either through an initiative 
or the new measures Brown signed last year - prosecutors will be 
reluctant to look to cities like Oakland for guidance on what pot 
businesses should and should not be permitted to do.

"They worry that the minute they show deference to some city 
officials in Oakland, someone will come out of the woodwork in 
Detroit who says, 'I have a city councilman who says you should leave 
me alone,' " Berman said. "The feds are concerned not only with how 
these rules play out in this case, but the next case and the next case."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom