Pubdate: Tue, 05 Jan 2016
Source: Lodi News-Sentinel (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Lodi News-Sentinel
Author: Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON - When Congress in effect lifted the federal ban on 
medical marijuana just over a year ago, Californians drove the 
change, which was tucked into a spending package by a liberal 
congressman and a conservative colleague.

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 said.

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 
changes. Gov. Jerry Brown has signed three measures to clarify the 
state law, but they won't take effect until 2018.

So for now, the state that was the birthplace for legal medical 
marijuana in the U.S. remains at the center of legal disputes as 
federal prosecutors 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 the intent of Congress.

"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-Calif.) 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-Calif.) teamed up in 2014 to write 
the measure that said anyone legally selling medical marijuana under 
a state law cannot be prosecuted.

Officials from the Justice Department declined to comment, citing 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 
lacking any accepted medical use. Congress has declined to change 
that even as it has approved the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, as the 
provision is 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 praised a 
decision by a a federal judge, who ruled 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 permit the sale of 
marijuana for recreational use. The Obama administration has chosen 
to allow that experiment to continue unabated. So operations in 
California, like Harborside, that target patients seeking the drug to 
treat illnesses can still be prosecuted while shops in Denver that 
cater to college students operate freely.

Over the summer, Farr and Rohrabacher accused the Justice Department 
of illegally misappropriating federal money to continue those 
prosecutions, calling on for its inspector general to investigate. 
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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom