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Obama’s War On Pot

While the press has hailed the president’s “public health” approach, the White House has cracked down on cannabis.

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The disconnect between narrative and reality when it comes to the Obama administration’s drug policy can be partly traced to a memo released by the Justice Department in October 2009. Raids on dispensaries and growers had already picked up following Obama’s inauguration, despite his campaign promise to cease targeting state-legal pot clubs. But this memo, colloquially referred to as the Ogden memo, was supposed to change that. It stated that medical marijuana would not be a priority for federal law enforcement unless it was being grown or sold in conjunction with a larger criminal enterprise.

The memo inspired celebration among medical marijuana advocates, and a sense of relief in state and local lawmakers. Yet less than a year later, DEA agents raided the home of 68-year-old Joy Greenfield, a Mendocino County, California, resident who grew marijuana with the blessing of her local sheriff. Agents destroyed Greenfield’s plants and seized her money and computer. As they have many times since, the DEA and US Attorneys then had the records sealed—a common practice in cases where releasing information might reveal the identity of a tipster or jeopardize an investigation, but hard to understand in the case of Greenfield, whom officers didn’t even bother to arrest. If the real goal is to conceal the extent to which agents have targeted small-time growers with no ties to cartels or interstate trafficking operations, however, sealing such records is an effective way to do so.

A June 2013 report issued by Americans for Safe Access found that the DEA had carried out some 270 medical marijuana raids under Obama—twelve more than had been conducted in the previous twelve years combined. It calculated that the Obama administration had spent $300 million “interfering” with state medical marijuana laws in the last four and a half years, outspending the Bush administration (both terms) by $100 million. 

The Ogden memo was not only supposed to prevent these raids; to those in the medical marijuana industry, it had sent a message encouraging the industry’s growth. Indeed, some have said that the reason the number of raids carried out under Obama spiked is due explicitly to the sheer number of dispensaries that set up shop after the memo’s release. 

In January 2013, an anonymous White House official told the Huffington Post that the Ogden memo had been misconstrued: it was never meant to encourage the industry’s growth. “If you read the memo, with the exception of a few words you maybe could’ve worded better, it’s really not that different from current law,” the source told reporters Ryan Grim and Ryan J. Reilly. “It took us by surprise, I will tell you, the way it was received in the beginning, and then the media ran with that narrative, that this was a change in policy and Obama’s gonna allow medical marijuana shops. 

“The smart legalizers ran with that too,” the source went on, “even though the really smart ones knew, when you read that memo, there really wasn’t much of a change from the Bush administration. All of a sudden, it took on a life of its own.”

To correct the impression that it had given a green light to medical marijuana providers, the Justice Department released a new memo on June 29, 2011. Named after Deputy Attorney General James Cole, it was marketed as a “clarification.” While the Ogden memo hadn’t been too explicit about who constituted a “caregiver,” the Cole memo defined the term explicitly as an individual who cares for patients, “not commercial operations cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana.” Practically overnight, dispensary operators and growers who thought they were free and clear so long as they didn’t traffic, work with gangs or sell to kids found themselves in the same category as the members of organized crime.

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