Seven Questions the 'Senate Cannabis Committee' Should Ask the Obama Administration

Sen. Patrick Leahy will head up an 'unprecedented' hearing on the Feds' new approach to prosecuting marijuana-related issues -- here's the ground he should cover.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws, scheduled for Sept. 10 and led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), have been hailed as “unprecedented.” Deputy Attorney General James Cole’s Aug. 29 memorandum to federal attorneys, advising that prosecuting cannabis businesses legal under state law should only be a priority if they commit other offenses such as selling to minors, has also been hailed as a major step towards legalization.

On the other hand, the Cole memo did not specifically enjoin federal prosecutors from going after medical-marijuana dispensaries or the pot stores that Colorado and Washington are preparing to license. Some—such as Melinda Haag of California’s Northern District, leader of the crackdown on dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area—are saying they will continue to target violations of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

With that in mind, the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has suggested seven questions the Leahy committee should ask Cole when he testifies.

(1) Will the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration stop pressuring banks and financial institutions to deny services to cannabis businesses that are operating legally under state law?

One aspect of the federal crackdown on dispensaries has been threatening to prosecute the banks that keep their accounts for money-laundering. These businesses may be legal under state law, but federal law considers them blatant drug traffickers, “unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity regarding marijuana,” as Haag put it in a 2011 memo.

“Forcing cannabis businesses to deal in cash only invites crime,” says Dale Gieringer of California NORML.

(2) Similarly, will the DEA desist from its recently reported policy of pressuring armed security services into not serving cannabis businesses?

Armored-car companies in California and Colorado, including Brinks, Dunbar, and ADT, have stopped serving dispensaries after receiving warnings from the DEA. “This ensures that businesses known to carry large amounts of cash will be transporting that cash without professional protection. You couldn't create a situation more ripe for criminal intervention if you tried,” Stephen Downing of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition told the L.A. Weekly.

(3) Will the Department of Justice direct the DEA to stop sending threatening forfeiture letters to landlords of cannabis businesses that operate legally under state law?

In Spokane, Washington in 2011, landlords evicted about 20 dispensaries within a month after receiving such letters. Haag filed forfeiture proceedings against the Harborside dispensary in Oakland, California’s largest, in 2012.

(4) Will the Department of Justice direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to rescind its prohibition on gun sales to otherwise law-abiding medical-marijuana users?

BATF Assistant Director Arthur Herbert instructed licensed gun dealers in 2011 that regardless of state law, any person who uses marijuana “is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance, and is prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition” under the Gun Control Act of 1968.

(5) Will the Department of Justice rescind its threats to prosecute local officials who try to regulate marijuana?

 In 2012, California’s Mendocino County stopped issuing medical growers permits for up to 99 plants after Haag threatened to prosecute the county officials who collected the fees. In 2011, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire vetoed a bill to have the state license medical-marijuana farms and dispensaries after the state’s two U.S. attorneys told her that government employees who worked in such a system could be prosecuted, and state property forfeited.

(6) Will the Department of Justice direct the DEA to reconsider its obsolescent, 40-year-old policy of treating marijuana as a Schedule I drug with no valid medical use?

 “There have been dozens of published studies showing medical benefits of marijuana, including several FDA-approved human studies by California's Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research,” says Gieringer, and 20 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted laws permitting medical use, along with Canada, Israel, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands. But the DEA refuses to change this policy, on the grounds that cannabis does not have a “known and reproducible” chemistry and no large-scale Phase II or Phase III clinical studies have ever been conducted on it. That standard is “impossible to meet” for a plant-based drug, Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access told Alternet after the federal D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the policy in January.

 (7) Will the DEA desist from obstructing scientific studies by denying access to marijuana for research purposes, and eliminate obsolescent rules that prevent legitimate researchers from using marijuana that is legally produced under state laws?

Current DEA regulations prohibit researchers from getting cannabis from any source other than the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s abysmal-quality marijuana. This prevents studies on the efficacy of, for example, the high-cannabidiol strains currently being bred for medical use. In 2009, the DEA overruled a decision by administrative-law judge Mary Ellen Bittner to let the University of Massachusetts grow its own cannabis for medical research.

“In effect, the DEA has created a Catch-22 situation, demanding that marijuana be proven through studies that it refuses to permit in the first place,” says Gieringer.

Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. He is the author of the novel "When the Drumming Stops" (Manic D Press), "Exit 25 Utopia," and "The Cannabis Companion."

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