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Why is the Obama Administration Suddenly Fixated on Stomping out Medical Pot?

At the same time public support for marijuana legalization reached record highs, Obama shifted from one time medicinal cannabis sympathizer to White House weed-whacker.
 
 
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Broken promises are nothing new in Washington, DC. Yet even by the Beltway’s jaded standards, President Obama’s role reversal from one time medicinal cannabis sympathizer to White House weed-whacker is remarkable.

Indeed, the man who once pledged on the campaign trail that he was “not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue,” has – since taking the Presidential oaths of office – done virtually everything in his administration’s power to do precisely that. Yet he's taken these steps at the very time that a record number of Americans, including 57 percent of democrats and a whopping 69 percent of self-described liberals, endorse doing just the opposite. Nonetheless, in recent months, the Obama administration – via a virtual alphabet soup of federal agencies – has launched an unprecedented series of attacks against medical cannabis patients, providers, and in some cases even their advocates.

 To review:

-- Deputy Attorney General James Cole, along with the four US Attorneys from California, has ramped up federal efforts to close or displace several hundreds of medical cannabis providers in California. Their tactics have included: raiding specific dispensaries and prosecuting their owners; filing civil forfeiture proceedings against landlords who rent their property to medical marijuana providers; threatening to federally prosecute newspapers and radio stations who accept ad revenue from medical cannabis operations; and, most recently, intimidating local lawmakers who have either enacted or are publicly supportive of cannabis oversight regulations. Speaking with radio station KQED San Francisco last month, Tommy LaNier – Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy's National Marijuana Initiative – boasted about the administration’s efforts to strong-arm local officials, stating "[We] have ... advised those places where they're trying to regulate marijuana -- which is illegal under the Control Substances Act -- (that) they cannot do that.”

-- In Colorado, United States Attorney John Walsh has sent letters to owners of dozens of the Centennial State’s medical cannabis facilities stating, "Action will be taken to seize and forfeit their property" if they do not cease their operations. Unlike similarly targeted dispensaries in California, the operations on Walsh’s hit list are explicitly licensed by the state and thus fully compliant with state law – a fact that Walsh’s letters readily acknowledge but appear content to ignore. "This ... constitutes formal notice that action will be taken to seize and forfeit (your) property if you do not cause the sale and/or distribution of marijuana and marijuana-infused substances at (this) location to be discontinued,” they state. “[T]he Department of Justice has the authority to enforce federal law even when such activities may be permitted under state law.” Ironically, the Justice Department’s letters arrived just weeks after US Attorney General Eric Holder publicly told (read: lied to) Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, an ardent supporter of the medicinal cannabis industry, that that the federal government would only target medical cannabis operators that "use marijuana in a way that's not consistent with the state statute." 

-- But the Obama Justice Department isn’t only sending letters to cannabis dispensaries owners and their landlords. Last year, the DOJ also mailed letters to numerous state lawmakers, including the Governors of Delaware, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, as they were debating legislation to allow for the licensed distribution of medical cannabis. The letters threatened federal prosecution for those involved with said efforts – including, in some cases, state civil servants – if the measures went forward. As a result, most didn’t.

The Justice Department isn’t the only agency directly involved in the administration’s medical pot crackdown. Also over the past six months:

-- The IRS has assessed crippling penalties on tax-paying medical cannabis facilities in California by denying these operations from filing standard expense deductions; 

-- The Department of Treasury has strong-armed local banks and other financial institutions into closing their accounts with medicinal marijuana operators. In Colorado, where the state’s estimated 700 licensed cannabis dispensaries are routinely subjected to state audits, there no longer remains even a single bank willing to openly do business with med-pot operators. 

-- The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms has sternly warned firearms dealers not to sell guns to medical cannabis consumers, and stated that patients who otherwise legally possess firearms are in violation of federal law and may face criminal prosecution;

-- In July, the Drug Enforcement Administration rejected a nine-year-old administrative petition that called for hearings regarding the federal rescheduling of marijuana for medical use, ignoring extensive scientific evidence of its medical efficacy. “[T]here are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving (marijuana's) efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts,” the agency alleged. “At this time, the known risks of marijuana use have not been shown to be outweighed by specific benefits in well-controlled clinical trials that scientifically evaluate safety and efficacy.”

-- This fall, the National Institute on Drug Abuse rejected an FDA-approved protocol to allow for clinical research assessing the use of cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder; a spokesperson for the agency conceded, “We generally do not fund research focused on the potential beneficial medical effects of marijuana.”

-- The DEA has reduced the total number of federally qualified investigators licensed to study plant marijuana in humans to 14 nationwide.

Most recently, and perhaps most egregiously, the DEA acknowledged that it was investigating a Montana state lawmaker for potentially conspiring to violate federal anti-marijuana laws. The lawmaker, Rep. Diane Sands – a Democrat from Missoula, Montana – served as the chairwoman of a 2011 interim legislative committee that sought to enact statewide regulations governing the production and distribution of medical pot, which has been legal in the state since 2004. "Can you say McCarthy?” she told The Missoulian newspaper.  “This sounds like stuff from the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joe McCarthy. So once you talk about medical marijuana in reasonable terms, you're on some sort of list of possible conspirators. … It's ridiculous, of course, but it's also threatening to think that the federal government is willing to use its influence and try to chill discussion about this subject."

* * *

So has the Obama administration collectively lost its mind when it comes to the subject of medical cannabis? That certainly seems to be the case. But the bigger question still remains: Why now?

Speculation among reformers and the general public is widespread. Many activists contend that the administration's about face is due to pressure
from the pharmaceutical industry, which they surmise may be hoping to eliminate competition in the marketplace for their own forthcoming, soon-to-be FDA-approved cannabis-based drug. Others believe that Obama’s crackdown is a Machiavellian attempt on the part of the President and his advisors to appeal to independent, conservative-leaning swing voters during an election year. Still others argue that the recent attacks have little to do with President Obama at all. Instead, they believe the efforts of the DEA, DOJ, and other federal agencies are being coordinated primarily by drug war hawks within the administration, many of which are holdovers from the George W. Bush regime, such as DEA administrator Michele Leonhart. Adding weight to this claim are recent statements from US Attorney Andre Birotte, who acknowledged that the DOJ’s recent activities were led by the federal prosecutors themselves and were not instigated by either President Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder – both of which are engaged in their own personal battles for political survival and, as a result, are unlikely to expend even a shred of political capital to halt the efforts of the administration’s more ardent drug warriors.

There may be a grain of truth in all of the above theories. But perhaps the greatest underlying motivator for the administration’s sudden and severe crackdown on medical marijuana providers and patients is its desire to preserve America’s longstanding criminalization of cannabis for everyone else. There is little doubt that the rapid rise of the medical marijuana industry and the legal commerce inherent to it is arguably the single biggest threat to federal cannabis prohibition. Just look at the poll numbers. According to Gallup, in 1996 – when California became the first state to allow for the legally sanctioned use of cannabis therapy – only 25 percent of Americans backed legalizing marijuana for all adults. (Seventy-three percent of respondents at that time said they opposed the idea.) Fast forward to 2011. Today, a record high 50 percent of Americans support legalizing the plant outright and only 46 percent of respondents oppose doing so. It’s this rapid rise in the public’s support for overall legalization that no doubt has the Obama administration, and the majority of America’s elected officials, running scared.

While the passage and enactment of statewide medical marijuana laws – 16 states and the District of Columbia now have laws recognizing marijuana’s therapeutic use on the books – is not solely driving the public’s shift in support for broader legalization, it is arguably a major factor. Why? The answer is simple. Tens of millions of Americans residing in these states are learning, first hand, that they can coexist with marijuana being legal! And that is the lesson the federal government fears most.

In states like California and Colorado, voters have largely become accustomed to the reality that there can be safe, secure, well-run businesses that deliver consistent, reliable, tested cannabis products. They have come to understand that well-regulated cannabis dispensaries can revitalize sagging economies, provide jobs, and contribute taxes to budget-starved localities. Most importantly, the public in these states and others are finally realizing that all the years of scaremongering by the government about what would happen if marijuana were legal, even for sick people, was nothing but hysterical propaganda. As a result, a majority of American voters are now for the first time asking their federal officials: ‘Why we don’t just legalize marijuana for everyone in a similarly responsible manner?’

That is a question the President remains unable and unwilling to answer. And the administration appears willing to go to any lengths to avoid it.

Editor's Note: This article incorrectly said Rep. Diane Sands is from Billings, Montana. She represents Missoula, Montana. 

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), and is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink (2009, Chelsea Green).