Hundreds of supporters of President Obama turned out to see him at Oakland’s Fox Theater on Monday afternoon. They lined up for blocks along Telegraph Avenue for the opportunity to see President Obama as he traveled from one fundraising event to another. Before the First Motorcade passed them, a march of several hundred people instructed them variously to “Smoke weed every day,” “Stop the madness, spark a spliff,” and demand that their candidate keep his promise.
The activists gathered first at Oakland City Hall to protest U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag’s crusade against area dispensaries. This April, in apparent contravention of the publicly stated will of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, federal agents raided Oaksterdam University. Recently, Haag has also threatened to seize Harborside Health Center, where 100,000 patients have procured medicine over the last six years. Representatives of the two dispensaries joined Judge Jim Gray, the vice-presidential candidate on the Libertarian ticket, a handful of Occupy Oakland regulars, and a community of cannabis patents in front of around 100 supporters.
Specifically, the group’s plea was for the president and the attorney general to intervene in Haag’s anti-dispensary fight. Behind this, they have Obama’s previous statements and what they have been led to believe was official Justice Department policy, as articulated by Holder. Candidate Obama said in 2007, “I would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users; it is not a good use of our resources. AG Holder has promised to keep the Justice Department’s nose out of medical marijuana establishments unless they 'are acting out of conformity with state law.'"
The letter Haag issued to explain her posture did not adhere to that standard, effectively calling the dispensaries too successful to tolerate rather than citing specific violations of state law. “The larger the operation,” read the letter, “the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state’s medical marijuana laws.” (Why no U.S. attorney has applied this standard to, say, financial institutions, remains to be explained.)
One by one, cannabis patients told their stories to counteract the DEA’s assertion that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use.” Jason David, who was featured in Discovery Channel’s “Weed Wars,” told the story of his son, who had a seizure every day of his life until he was treated with CBP, which changed his life. “I’m getting my son back,” David said. “He can look me in my eyes. He can comprehend now, which he never could before. Now, when we go swimming, he’s happy. He gets to swim. Before, when we would go to a swimming pool, he couldn’t swim. He’d look at it and have a seizure.”
One woman in a wheelchair announced, “My name is Mira Ingram. I have a paralyzed digestive tract, and medical cannabis is what allows me to eat. If I lose access to my medical cannabis, I will end up on a feeding tube needlessly thanks to the federal government.”
Steve Rauscher, a “61-year-old suburbanite” with a degenerative disc problem that has necessitated four back surgeries laid into the president. “President Obama, hands off my medicine,” he said. “If you want a penny from me, if you want a second of my time volunteering for your campaign, or if you want my vote, end the madness now.”
The state law in question is 1996’s Compassionate Use Act, passed by the general voting public as Proposition 215. Many of the activists I spoke to expressed special protectiveness over the sanctity of that law owing to its passage in a directly democratic manner. If resistance to federal tampering with state law is a more traditionally conservative position than many are used to adopting, it is not the only “conservative” sentiment expressed at the rally. “Tough on crime,” one poster said. “Not on patients.”
That crime rises when a previously legal substance is suddenly criminalized is a lesson we well know in the United States of America. As Judge Gray pointed out to the crowd, if Oaksterdam and Harborside are closed, “people will still be getting marijuana, but it will be in illegal manners.”
“The U.S. attorney is definitely abusing her discretion,” said Steve DeAngelo, founder of Harborside and longtime cannabis reform advocate. “Why does she feel it’s so appropriate to spend limited federal law enforcement resources persecuting people who are in compliance with state law?”
“Bag the Haag,” chanted marchers in one of the rally’s less tactful moments, imploring the president to fire the U.S. attorney. Even Judge Gray expressed his support for that use of executive authority. “Every U.S. attorney works for the Department of Justice and is therefore ostensibly obeying Holder’s directions,” he said. “It’s well within the chain of command for the president to intervene.”
In the wake of the 2006 U.S. attorney firing scandal, the famously risk-averse Obama administration is unlikely to pursue so high-profile and drastic a measure, especially given that Attorney Haag is a Democrat and the election is just a few months away.
Many protesters mentioned the more than $100 million in tax revenue the medical marijuana industry generates for the state of California, in a time of budget cutbacks – not to mention the cost of the investigations, prosecutions and raids. “It’s very nice of President Obama to come out with his words of grief over the Colorado shooting,” said Rauscher. “But why are you not using the limited resources of the Department of Justice to go after the illegal assault weapons that have infected our cities and our country?”