Obama's War on Weed

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 sixteen states, from Arizona to Washington, New Jersey to Delaware.

But the feds' tolerance wasn't quite what it seemed. While legal weed grew from 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, U.S. attorneys 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 are."

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 sixteen 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 enforcement."

Certainly Obama's threats are real. He may be loath to jail landlords, bankers or even dispensary owners. Arresting nonviolent, 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.

Marijuana really 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, nonviolent 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 Riverfront Times that Duffy's threat gave him the willies.

"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 dispensaries.)

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 alone.

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 have.

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 that 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" Taber 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 more.

A million patients can't be wrong

An estimated one 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?

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
Angelica Sellers
Angelica Sellers

it looks to me like some people get very rich as long as the black market would be the only chance to buy marijuana. why else would they try to target the pot related businesses (in a time where every penny of taxes and every job is needed so badly). guess a few of the big shots are deeply involved in the black market themselves. just follow the money if you find no obvious reason behind such actions.


the global government entities including the united nations have told all the member countries like the u. s. that they must keep cannabis illegal. it has nothing to do with states rights arguments. this is the new world [law and] order. but they are fooling themselves because it's too easy to grow. it's like it was for the moonshiner during prohibition. he ended up being about the main one against repealing prohibition. in cali many in the cannabis culture [mainly growers] voted against prop 19 [legalization] cause they feared the mega farm competition. bottom line:things are not always as they appear.

Alicia Papin
Alicia Papin

Barney Frank and Ron Paul have worked together to legalize but only one of them is runnng for the white house. Guess who I'm voting for in November.


Ron Paul is the only sensible candidate running

William Helm
William Helm

All one has to do is look at DEA's budget and that is why they'll fight to keep it illegal .


insane. target the weed smokers cause thats the krux of all the problems in america. gee these businesses actually want to pay taxes and have legit businesses but the gment think weed is worse than herion or meth. its stupid and obama is pretty stupid for not seeing a whole new industry to add jobs.

K Phlypp
K Phlypp

Umm, under the 10th Amendment, the Federal gov't only has the powers granted to it in the Constitution. All other powers belong to the people or the states. As the Constitutiion does not grant the Federal gov't the right to govern what one consumes, or to illegalize a naturally growing herb, what the Feds are doing is unconstitutional, and a violation of states' rights. Of course this should not come as a suprise...The Constitution no longer means anything, and in fact, America sold out to a private corporation, The Federal Reserve, about 100 years ago. What may be a bit more of a shock to most is that if the Feds continue this illegal War on Drugs, it will lead to another civil war. Hope you are ready.

James Hodges
James Hodges

Interesting to see all the pot heads posting in here... It's about time Obummer did something right. He swore to uphold the laws of the land.. it's about time he did so.


It was here long before the US government, and it will be here long after they are gone. You will NEVER stop people from using it. So to the powers that be, just do whats right and LEGALIZE!


I don;t smoke not even cigs .But I think that they should legalize weed, They could tax it sell it like cigs and make alot of money . It would help get us back on our feet. The goverment is not thinking right if they did they would see what it could do for us money wise. People should vote on anything and everything not our goverment. We are the ones that should pass or not pass everything .Our goverment should not be the one.s to vote it needs to be us .So let the people decide not our goverment so far they havent done us any good but put us in debt that we will never get out of .


I agree with halfdead. Obama just sealed his fate with me. Way to lose voters dumbass.


Tax revenue would sharply increase yet the feds won't legalize..another reason this economy is being hurt On Purpose..


While Obama may be able to stop the sales of medical marijuana, neither he nor all the feds in the United States will be able to stop people from smoking God's gift to mankind. People have smoked weed for thousands of years in every culture all over the world. It's like trying to wipe out prostitution...it ain't gonna happen!

A Gallop poll released October 17th shows 50% of Americans now support the legalization of marijuana, up from 46% last year. Medical marijuana opened the door to legalization and that door will open wider and wider until weed is finally legal. And for good reason. Weed is the 2nd largest cash crop after corn in America. Legalizaing marijuana and taxing it would reap billions in tax revenue in the long run and would put a big dent in crime. Legalizatioin would also save untold billions in state and federal monies used to incarcerate tens of thousands of people now in custody for weed related offenses. This combined with tax revenues from legalization would reap rewards for the taxpayers and state and federal governments in staggering proportions. It would be a win win situation for everyone. And since our national debt is out of control, revenues from legalization and the savings of from not prosecuting marijuana related offenses would benefit us more than anything ever attempted.

I was a student in the 1960's when weed swept college campuses like wildfire. I tried it, liked it, and have smoked ever since. I will smoke until the day my bong is pried from my dead cold hand. I never thought I would see the day where weed would become legal, but now there is a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Weed will become legal in the not to distant future and when it does, we will all be better off, whether one smokes or not. It's a win win situation whose time has come! Gotta go, it's time to fire up the bong!

A Gallop poll released October


Bravo to the RFT and VV for finally writing an article critical of a leftist. While i did vote for Hopey Mchange, I am starting to see that he is just like all the rest and we have been fooled again.


I have never had a thing to do with marijuana. Indeed, I've never even been offered the drug, unlike our current President and very likely his immediate predecessor.

I do have a speculative explanation for this. I believe the assertion of federal supremacy in this area has to do with the state challenges to federal supremacy in the matter of ObamaCare. If the federal AG has to go to court defending the federal health care law against state supremacy claims, their argument that federal law trumps state won't hold as much water as it could so long as their averting their eyes from the various state contravention of federal prohibition of marijuana sale and possession. A good judge, seeing the feds not prosecuting large scale growing and dispensing operations, but prosecuting some state for claiming citizens cannot be forced to buy health insurance, would want to know why the asymmetry.

I personally think that what the feds are doing in these matters is lousy. I hope it backfires on them politically.


Well, I know who I'm NOT voting for in this upcoming election. Obama just lost a supporter.


k phlypp is correct. obama takes his directives from the global corporate banking cartel called the federal reserve. they have controlled the issuance and printing of our money since 1913. they create plentiful money[boom] to get everyone in debt. then they call in their loans, stop printing money[bust] and buy up real assets like homes and power companies etc. at firesale prices til they eventually own everything and the people are dumbed down to china style tyranny. no one is allowed to see their books and no one over sees their operations. obama , by being a manchurian candidate, has furthered the republican new world [law and] order agenda more than any avowed repub could have dreamed of doing.



St. Louis Concert Tickets