Obama's War on Weed Represents a Strange About-Face on Medical Marijuana

The new federal crackdown on medical marijuana announced 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 that 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 have multiplied since voters approved the state's 1996 medical marijuana law. By late last year, California reportedly had more dispensaries than Starbucks outlets.

The same thing was happening to varying degrees in 17 states, from Arizona to Washington, New Jersey to Colorado. In Florida, Rep. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth submitted a resolution that would put a medical-marijuana amendment before voters next year, although it's unlikely to make it through the Republican-dominated Legislature.

If a constitutional amendment makes it to the ballot, it's likely to pass; a statewide poll in March found that 57 percent of Floridians favor legalizing medical marijuana.

"There's no question this has gone totally mainstream," says Karen Goldstein, director of NORML of Florida and a former teacher. "Once politicians realize people really want this, they'll have no choice but to get onboard."

But the feds' tolerance isn't quite what it seemed. While legal weed grew to an estimated $10 billion 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.

Marijuana supporters figured Obama would call off the attack. In 2006, he told an audience of magazine editors: "When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently. That was the point."

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 21. Under pressure from teetotalers — nine former Drug Enforcement Agency chiefs begged Obama to oppose the measure — Attorney General Eric Holder said 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.


After the Oakland City Council prepared last year 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" the infamous Ogden 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 warned.

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

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: Papers owned by New Times' parent company, Village Voice Media, accept such ads.)

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 are."

The president's push grew louder last month. The U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives 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.

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Ray Stern
Contact: Ray Stern