Bill Clinton said he didn’t inhale. Barack Obama now says he doesn’t want anyone else to do so either — including HIV/AIDS patients, cancer sufferers and those with chronic disease and illness.
The president’s startling moves in recent weeks — despite his 2008 campaign promises and subsequent assurances that state medical marijuana laws would be respected — threaten the survival of programs and laws in the 16 states that have approved them and may derail or further delay the long-awaited and pending implementation of a voter-approved program in D.C.
He’s serious about it. This is not the usual “wink of the eye” position the public has grown accustomed to hearing from politicians on the issue. The Obama administration has announced that the federal government will utilize a full complement of its powers to prosecute and shut down state-sanctioned cultivation and distribution centers.
The president’s “hands-off” approach has swiftly vaporized.
During the last campaign, Obama pledged that he was “not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state [medical marijuana] laws.”
All that changed with a recent U.S. Department of Justice memo proffering a dire warning: “We maintain the authority to enforce [federal law] vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.”
The effect of these federal directives threatening harsh criminal sanctions is already being felt around the country.
Arizona, where a 2010 voter referendum approving a program was in the process of being set up, has put implementation on hold. Washington State Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed a statewide proposal that would have created licensed dispensaries on the day after federal raids on two businesses in Spokane and both of the state’s U.S. Attorneys warned her that even state employees could be prosecuted for their role in marijuana regulation. Gov. Chris Christie wants to delay New Jersey’s implementation of the state’s new medical marijuana law until there is some clarity about the legal jeopardy for workers and operators. Warning letters have been sent to government officials in Colorado, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
On Oct. 7, all four California federal prosecutors announced a coordinated plan to shut down state dispensaries, setting a 45-day deadline for compliance. They warned operators and their landlords that failure will result in criminal charges, with seven civil forfeiture complaints already filed against property owners. At least one landlord is facing up to 40 years in federal prison, property seizure and forfeiture of all rental proceeds for the last 15 years since voter approval of the program in 1996.
Even the IRS and the Treasury Department are now in on the game.
Two weeks ago, the IRS sent a $2.4 million tax bill to Oakland’s largest medical marijuana dispensary and has begun audits on at least 12 others in the state and has sent letters to landlords warning that the feds could seize their property at any time, citing a portion of U.S. tax code that prohibits illegal drug-trafficking organizations from deducting business expenses.
Colorado’s gay Rep. Jared Polis has introduced legislation requiring the IRS to allow all businesses — including marijuana dispensaries — to deduct expenses. “There are more pressing issues facing federal law enforcement, so it makes no sense for them to waste time and taxpayer money interfering with state-legal businesses that voters have approved, that are well regulated and that generate jobs and economic activity,” he has said.
“The California marijuana industry is not about providing medicine to the sick,” proclaimed U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy. “It’s a pervasive for-profit industry that violates federal law.”
Like a memorably harsh bong hit, this kind of talk signals a clear and shocking policy shift on the part of the White House.
Among more cynical health advocates and caregivers, the Obama administration is motivated by a desire to eliminate less expensive market competition for pharmaceutical manufacturers preparing to introduce new products like Sativex, a proprietary liquid extract of cannabis.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says that “Barack Obama . . . seems determined to recriminalize as much as possible. It all adds up to bad policy, bad politics and bad faith.”