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11 Enemies of Marijuana Legalization

From President Obama to NYC Mayor Bloomberg, the authorities are still bent on keeping pot illegal.

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In 1990, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates told a Senate committee that people who smoked pot occasionally “ought to be taken out and shot.” That kind of fanaticism, which dominated the debate on drugs 20 years ago, seems to have faded. Today’s politicians are more likely to dismiss cannabis concerns as “not serious” than to rail against the demons of dope—but the powers that be are still bent on keeping pot illegal. U.S. cops bust an average of almost 100 people every hour for pot, and an array of think tanks and nonprofit groups continues to pump out prohibitionist propaganda.

Here are 11 of the worst—the most powerful and the most vehement.

1. DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart

A holdover from the Bush administration, Leonhart was formally appointed to head the Drug Enforcement Administration by Barack Obama in 2010. The antiprohibitionist movement strongly opposed her, citing the DEA’s raids on medical-marijuana growers in California—including one on a 69-year-old woman who had been the first grower to register with the Mendocino County Sheriff. 

As the DEA’s acting director in January 2009, she overruled a DEA administrative-law judge’s recommendation and denied the University of Massachusetts a license to cultivate marijuana for FDA-approved research. “This single act has blocked privately funded medical marijuana research in this country,” NORML head Allen St. Pierre said in July 2010.

Leonhart often carries hardline views to absurd extremes. In 2011, asked about the drug-cartel carnage in Mexico, she told the Washington Post that “It may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs,” because the cartels were fighting each other “like caged animals.” In June 2012, asked by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) if crack, heroin and methamphetamine were worse for your health than marijuana, she repeatedly answered, “I believe all illegal drugs are bad.” Asked if opioid painkillers like OxyContin were more addictive than marijuana, she answered, “All illegal drugs in Schedule I are addictive.”

2. California’s U.S. Attorneys: Melinda Haag, Andre Birotte, Laura E. Duffy, and Benjamin B. Wagner

The state’s four federal prosecutors have led the campaign against medical marijuana. In October 2011, they began sending letters to dispensaries and their landlords, threatening to seize their buildings if the drug dealing on the premises didn’t cease. 

The Obama administration’s initial policy, at least on paper, was to prosecute only facilities that might be violating state laws. But early in 2011, Haag, whose district includes the Bay Area and the Emerald Triangle, significantly narrowed that. The federal government will not prosecute individual patients, she told Oakland City Attorney John Russo, but would go after “individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity regarding marijuana, even if such activity is permitted under state law.” 

“Marijuana is illegal under federal law, and I felt like I had to do something to respond to those members of my community that don't support it,” she told San Francisco’s KQED-TV last March.

Haag has carried that out with raids on dispensaries, including the April raid on Richard Lee’s Oaksterdam University. In July, she filed forfeiture proceedings against the Harborside dispensaries in Oakland and San Jose, the state’s biggest. Her reason for going after Harborside was “the larger the operation, the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state’s medical marijuana laws, and marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated medical need.”

Duffy, the prosecutor for the San Diego area, threatened in October 2011 to bust newspapers and other media outlets that took dispensary ads, but retreated after a civil-liberties outcry. Last August, she warned officials in the suburb of Del Mar that if voters there approved an initiative to tax dispensaries, she might prosecute city employees who collected the taxes as drug traffickers.