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Reformers Shouldn’t Feel Betrayed By Obama

“Medical cannabis activists” and “drug policy reform” advocates are complaining bitterly that they have been double-crossed by Barack Obama. The Mendocino Medical Marijuana Advisory Board last week emailed an article that typifies the widespread sense of betrayal: “Obama's Sudden, Senseless Assault on Medical Marijuana.” It was written by Scott Morgan, associate editor of, and ran in the Huffinton Post.

“Recent months have brought about what can only be described as the rapid collapse of the Obama Administration's support for medical marijuana,” Morgan wrote.

Contrary to this assertion, there is nothing “sudden” about the DEA raids and other oppressive measures emanating from the DOJ. Neither Obama nor the Department of Justice ever expressed unambiguous support for medical marijuana. It was the reform honchos themselves who misread and misrepresented Administration policy.

“What's Behind the Obama Administration's About Face Regarding Medical Marijuana?” was the title of a piece by by Paul Armentano of NORML that ran in the Huffington Post May 5. Armentano cited a Justice Department memo describing the policy that he contends the Administration has now abandoned:

“Here was the Obama administration's well publicized position on medical marijuana, circa 2009 (via the Ogden memo to all United States attorneys): ‘The prosecution of significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, and the disruption of illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking networks continues to be a core priority in the Department's efforts against narcotics and dangerous drugs, and the Department's investigative and prosecutorial resources should be directed towards these objectives. As a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

We Told You So #419

Your correspondent was not misled by the Ogden memo. As reported in the AVA, “On October 17, 2009, David Ogden, the second-highest official in the Justice Department, issued a ‘Memorandum for Selected United States Attorneys on Investigations and Prosecutions in States Authorizing the Medical Use of Marijuana.’ It read like a reiteration of the mixed messages Attorney General Eric Holder had sent out verbally.’’

We had previously compiled a detailed chronology of Obama Administration statements and actions involving medical marijuana (See “A Guide for the Perplexed, O’Shaughnessy’s Summer 2009). Some selected items:

Jan. 22 (two days after Obama’s inauguration): DEA agents conduct a raid on a South Lake Tahoe cannabis dispensary run by a wheelchair-bound entrepreneur named Ken Estes. They seize about five pounds of herbal medicine and a few thousands dollars. No arrests are made. “It was a typical rip-and-run” says Estes…

Feb. 3: Four cannabis dispensaries in the Los Angeles area are raided simultaneously by DEA squads…

Feb. 11: DEA agents take part in a raid on the MendoHealing Co-operative farm in Fort Bragg, California…

Feb. 25: Attorney General Holder holds a press conference with Acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart (a Bush appointee) to discuss drug-related violence in Mexico…

March 18: AG Holder tells reporters in Washington that the Justice Department does not intend to prosecute cannabis dispensaries that comply with state law. “The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law. To the extent that people do that and try to use medical marijuana laws as a shield for activity that is not designed to comport with what the intention was of the state law, those are the organizations, the people, that we will target. And that is consistent with what the president said during the campaign.”

March 19: PC activists tell the media that Holder's remarks represent a big win. “Today's comments clearly represent a change in policy out of Washington,” says Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance to the LA Times. “He [Holder] is sending a clear message to the DEA.” But Drug Warriors contend that Holder's policy statement vindicates the approach they've taken all along. The US Attorney's spokesman in Los Angeles, Thom Mrozek, tells the Times: “In every single case we have prosecuted, the defendants violated state as well as federal law.”

March 20: The NY Times runs a piece by Solomon Moore headlined “Dispensers of Marijuana Find Relief in Policy Shift.” Ethan Nadelmann is quoted saying the feds now recognize state medical marijuana laws as “kosher.”

Compared to the retention of Michele Leonhardt at DEA, Eric Holder's ambiguous March 18 2009 statement about respecting state law was insignificant. But Ethan Nadelmann’s totally wrong reading of it was shared by and disseminated by the leaders of all the Beltway-based reform groups, and by Cannabis-industry entrepreneurs eager to attract investors. The false “Kosher” seal would stay on their baloney for about a year. It wasn't until the spring of 2010 that Nadelmann's Drug Policy Alliance started sending out emails saying, “Send us money so we can tell the Administration to get rid of Leonhardt.”

No wonder Scott Morgan now writes of a “sudden... rapid collapse of support for medical marijuana.” He, like many other activists, had been led to believe in “support” that never existed in the first place.

What's happening now — the threatening letters from US attorneys to state officials, the tax audits of dispensaries, etc. — is an escalation, not a change of policy. A surge, to use the term the Drug Warriors undoubtedly used when they planned it. And you can bet they did plan it — that there were meetings involving DEA, and Joe Califano's Prohibitionist think tank at Columbia University, and strategists from Johnson & Johnson, just as there had been after Prop 215 passed in '96 — all the earmarks of an orchestrated campaign.

That's the story reform-minded, Beltway-based journalists ought to be investigating instead of whining about being misled by Barack Obama.

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