by Phillip Smith
While DEA raids on medical marijuana providers never came to a complete halt after the Obama administration declared in 2009 that it would not interfere with people operating in compliance with state medical marijuana laws, the pace did slacken. But now, the raids are on the increase -- there have been at least 90 DEA SWAT-style raids since Obama took office -- and the federal government has unveiled an ominous new weapon in its war on the weed: US attorneys in a number of medical marijuana states sending letters to politicians threatening dire consequences, even the potential arrest of state employees, if states okay schemes to tolerate and regulate medical marijuana distribution.
Threatening letters from US attorneys have been sent to officials in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Rhode Island, and Washington. The first was in February in California; the latest came this week in Arizona.
What is worse is that the interventions by the US attorneys appear deliberately timed to intimidate elected officials as they consider regulating medical marijuana dispensaries -- and it seems to be working. Last week, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed a bill that would have created a regulated dispensary system after requesting and receiving a threatening letter from her state's two US attorneys. This week, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee "placed a hold" on dispensaries about to open there after receiving an unsolicited threatening letter from the US attorney.
Earlier, as Montana legislators debated whether to regulate and allow dispensaries there, the feds hit them with a one-two punch of DEA raids and a US attorney letter. While Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a bill that would have repealed the state's medical marijuana law, all indications are that he will not veto a bill that will effectively kill dispensaries in Big Sky Country. And in Hawaii, legislators backed away from a dispensary bill after receiving similar threats.
The medical marijuana community has responded with protests -- there were actions in cities across the country on Monday -- but appears uncertain about what to do next. There are calls to reschedule marijuana, including one by Washington Gov. Gregoire, there are calls for the Obama administration or Congress to do something, and there are calls on state elected and appointed officials to stand firm in the face of federal bullying.
A group of Washington state legislators has also responded by sending a letter asking the state's Attorney General for his legal opinion on the law. The 15 legislators, all Democrats, led by Rep. Roger Goodman (Kirkland), asked Attorney General Rob McKenna if state employees had anything to fear from federal law enforcement if the vetoed state licensing provisions of the bill were revived, according to the Kitsap Sun.
A cannabis rescheduling petition to change marijuana's status under the Controlled Substances Act has been pending since 2002. Perhaps if Gregoire can rally other governors behind her, they can light a fire under the feds.
In the meantime, the raids continue. The DEA hit a San Diego dispensary Tuesday.
"This turn of events with the US attorneys is troublesome and reactionary," said Dale Gieringer, the long-time head of California NORML, who had just returned from a Sacramento rally in support of Dr. Mollie Fry and her companion, Dale Schafer, who had that day begun serving five-year federal prison sentences for medical marijuana cultivation. "It makes your head spin about that Obama policy of low enforcement, but Obama never said he supports states having access, and the US attorneys have taken matters into their own hands. This is certainly disappointing."
"It's very disconcerting and alarming that the federal government is deciding to deal with the medical marijuana issue this way," said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access(ASA), the nation's largest medical marijuana defense organization. "We had been seeing progress, with states passing distribution laws, others amending their laws to include distribution, and others passing new laws to incorporate distribution into the laws they passed. It's very unsettling that the federal government is choosing to interfere in the implementation of those laws and restrict the access that patients could benefit from or are benefiting from."
ASA recently gave the Obama administration a failing grade on its approach to medical marijuana. That report card cited continuing law enforcement actions against medical marijuana providers. It is unclear whether the recent US attorney letters represent a policy shift at the Justice Department or whether individual prosecutors are taking the initiative. The Justice Department did not respond to a Chronicle call for clarification. Still, it is clear that the federal prosecutors are on a mission.
"When the Rhode Island US attorney made the threat he did, without being asked, that signified that this is more than just a defensive policy, it is an aggressive policy on the part of the US attorneys to keep medical marijuana illegal," said Gieringer.
"We'd like to know what's going on," said Hermes. "The federal government is showing its cards now. This is drawing attention to the fact that it didn't necessarily mean what it said when it said it wouldn't use Department of Justice resources to circumvent state laws. It certainly seems like there is a concerted effort in the background, but no one has come out from Justice and said that. Justice has refused to meet with patient advocates since this increased interference in the past few months, and they need to address this community and this issue. They can't say one thing in a policy statement and do the exact opposite. The spotlight is on the president at this point."
"The federal government has totally ignored us on all fronts," said Geiringer, "but we're just going to have to keep insisting that we be heard. I would like to see somebody in Congress question this on the record. It never gets mentioned in congressional hearings when DEA officials are up there; it's just totally ignored."
"The timing of these memos really smacks of intimidation and interference," said Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "Our advice for lawmakers is to stand their ground and do what's best for their states, particularly when it comes to the feds prosecuting state employees involved in registries. There has never been a prosecution; it doesn’t rise to the level of aiding and abetting."
"They've never moved against any public official for this stuff anywhere, so I think this is an empty threat," agreed Gieringer, "but public officials being what they are, they are easily cowed."
Elected and appointed officials at the state level need to stand firm against the federal threats, said Fox. "The US attorney memos are frightening and starting to get more severe in tone, but all we need to do is have the states considering dispensary regulation to continue moving ahead with that. I don't think the feds are going to push this too much. They don't have the resources, and it would be a policy disaster for the administration."
If the threats to go after state officials are over-hyped, the dangers to dispensary operators are not. One was convicted in Spokane as legislators deliberated, and more than a dozen were raided in Montana as the legislature took up medical marijuana bills. They are all looking at lengthy federal prison sentences if prosecuted and convicted.
"It's not lawmakers who will be looking at five-year federal prison sentences, but dispensary operators. They have to make personal decisions about whether they want to take that risk. Opening dispensaries is not just a way to provide safe access for patients, but also an act of civil disobedience, and you could face consequences," warned MPP's Fox.
ASA is holding training sessions for dispensary operators, said Hermes. But operators also need to continue to organize and pressure their elected representatives, he said.
But if the feds are standing firm, so is the medical marijuana movement. ASA, MPP, and California NORML all pledged to continue the fight.
"This is the federal government's last shot to try to prevent something that is working well in the US and will continue to work as long as the federal government stays out of the business of implementing state laws," said Hermes. "More than that, the federal government should be working with states to design a comprehensive federal policy that includes disengagement from enforcement and investment in research and rescheduling marijuana so that patients are protected wherever they live."
"We will continue to try to shine a light on this absurd and obscene misuse of law enforcement," said Gieringer, again pointing to the case of Dr. Fry and Dale Schafer. "Dale is on anti-hemophilia drugs with one treatment costing $10,000. He's also on morphine. And they're sending him to prison for five years? That's just crazy, but the machine just keeps going."
"We are just on the cusp of being legitimate and are now being beat back," said Fox. "We have to hold our ground."