WASHINGTON -- The United States government took a historic step back from its long-running drug war on Thursday, when Attorney General Eric Holder informed the governors of Washington and Colorado that the Department of Justice would allow the states to create a regime that would regulate and implement the ballot initiatives that legalized the use of marijuana for adults.
A Justice Department official said that Holder told the governors in a joint phone call early Thursday afternoon that the department would take a "trust but verify approach" to the state laws. DOJ is reserving its right to file a preemption lawsuit at a later date, since the states' regulation of marijuana is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole also issued a three-and-a-half page memo to U.S. attorneys across the country. "The Department's guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests," it reads. "A system adequate to that task must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice."
The memo also outlines eight priorities for federal prosecutors enforcing marijuana laws. According to the guidance, DOJ will still prosecute individuals or entities to prevent:
- the distribution of marijuana to minors;
- revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
- the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
- state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
- violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana
- drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
- growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands;
- preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.
The eight high-priority areas leave prosecutors bent on targeting marijuana businesses with a fair amount of leeway, especially the exception for "adverse public health consequences." And prosecutors have shown a willingness to aggressively interpret DOJ guidance in the past, as the many medical marijuana dispensary owners now behind bars can attest.
U.S. Attorneys will individually be responsible for interpreting the guidelines and how they apply to a case they intend to prosecute. A Justice Department official said, for example, that a U.S Attorney could go after marijuana distributors who used cartoon characters in their marketing because that could be interpreted as attempting to distribute marijuana to minors.
But the official stressed that the guidance was not optional, and that prosecutors would no longer be allowed to use the sheer volume of sales or the for-profit status of an operation as triggers for prosecution, though these factors could still affect their prosecutorial decisions.
The Obama administration has struggled with the legalization of medical marijuana in several states. Justice Department Officials had instructed federal prosecutors across the country not to focus federal resources on individuals who were complying with state laws regarding the use of medical marijuana. But the U.S. attorneys in several states that had legalized medical marijuana rebelled, and what was known as the Ogden memo faced stiff resistance from career prosecutors.
"That's just not what they do,” one former Justice official told HuffPost. “They prosecute people."
As a result of the internal pushback at DOJ, a new memo was issued by Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2011 that gave U.S. attorneys more cover to go after medical marijuana distributors. Federal prosecutors began threatening local government officials with prosecution if they went forward with legislation regulating medical cannabis.
After recreational marijuana initiatives passed in Washington and Colorado in November, President Barack Obama said the federal government had “bigger fish to fry” and would not make going after marijuana users a priority.
Holder said back in December that the federal response to the passage of the state ballot measures would be coming “relatively soon.”
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson told HuffPost his office was preparing for the “worst-case scenario” of a federal lawsuit against the law.
UPDATE: 6:15 p.m. -- Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), who'd been pressing Holder to make a decision and respect the will of the states' voters, applauded the move, saying in a statement that "the Justice Department should focus on countering and prosecuting violent crime, while respecting the will of the states whose people have voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use." He had previously scheduled a hearing on the issue for Sept. 10.
At issue will be how the U.S. Attorneys will implement the directive. John Walsh, the lead prosecutor for the District of Colorado, has previously aggressively interpreted guidance from Justice higher-ups and targeted medical marijuana dispensaries that were not accused of breaking any state laws, like those that were operating near schools. His reaction Thursday to Holder's announcement might not give Colorado business owners much confidence that he intends to modify his approach.
"Of particular concern to the U.S. Attorney’s Office are cases involving marijuana trafficking directly or indirectly to children and young people; trafficking that involves violence or other federal criminal activity; trafficking conducted or financed by street gangs and drug cartels; cultivation of marijuana on Colorado’s extensive state and federal public lands; and trafficking across state and international lines," Walsh said. "In addition, because the Department of Justice’s guidance emphasizes the central importance of strong and effective state marijuana regulatory systems, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will continue to focus on whether Colorado’s system, when it is implemented, has the resources and tools necessary to protect those key federal public safety interests. To accomplish these goals, we look forward to closely working with our federal, state and local partners."
Via Huffington Post
Yesterday, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) issued "What's the Cost?" a report on the federal war on medical cannabis (marijuana). This important report tallies the various types of federal interference by the Department of Justice (DOJ) against medical cannabis patients and their providers, while sharing stories of the individuals caught in the middle.
Since its founding in 2002, ASA has been tracking the adoption and implementation of state medical cannabis laws, compiling raw data on actions taken by the DOJ to thwart successful implementation of these laws. Over the years, the DOJ has employed an array of tactics, including paramilitary-style raids on individual patients and state-authorized dispensaries, asset forfeiture actions against property owners (usually the landlords of dispensaries), and bullying tactics designed to pressure elected officials against adopting or implementing medical cannabis laws. The report summarizes the human and monetary costs of enforcing an unpopular and outdated federal policy that sustains this heartless war on medical cannabis.
"What's the Cost?" confirms how much the U.S. Justice Department has spent over three presidential administrations to investigate, raid, arrest, prosecute, and imprison hundreds of medical cannabis patients and their providers -- nearly half a billion dollars. Far outspending all of his predecessors, the report reveals that President Obama has dedicated nearly $300 million to such enforcement efforts, despite his repeated pledges to not use Justice Department funds in this way.
In 2011 and 2012, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spent four percent of its budget on the medical marijuana crackdown. Having conducted at least 270 paramilitary-style raids during the past four years, Obama's DEA spent approximately $8 million to carry them out. However, the amount of taxpayer dollars spent on raids was dwarfed by the amount spent on investigative efforts preceding raids, indictments, and lawsuits, which has totaled more than $200 million. Over the past two years alone, the DOJ has effectively shuttered more than 500 dispensaries in California, Colorado, and Washington State by sending letters to landlords, threatening criminal prosecution and seizure of their property.
While we were drafting the report, the cost estimates had to be updated to reflect two more raids, a series of asset forfeiture threats against landlords in Washington State, and the surrender of three individuals to begin serving 5-year mandatory minimum sentences. While the report was being formatted, Michigan cultivator and organ transplant recipient Jerry Duval began serving a 10-year prison term, which will not only be detrimental to his health but according to the Huffington Post is also expected to cost taxpayers more than $1 million. In addition, at least another hundred letters went out to landlords in California, and US Attorneys filed two more asset forfeiture lawsuits. By the same estimates used in the report, those actions would add another $10 million to the amount President Barack Obama has spent on this senseless war.
The battle for safe access to medical cannabis in the US spans more than 40 years and includes each branch of the federal government, as well as almost every state legislature in the country. Yet, medical cannabis is one of those issues that seems far from the lives of most Americans -- that is, until they or a loved-one needs it. I, myself, didn't pay attention to the issue until 2001, the year my doctor recommended I use cannabis. But our government is waging a war that puts our most vulnerable citizens in the crossfire, and every American has a responsibility to do something about that. We elect our federal representatives who authorize those wars and we pay taxes that fund them. Therefore, we also hold the key to ending such harmful policies.
"What's the Cost?" focuses on the most intense part of this battle being waged by the federal government, which began in 1996 when states began passing medical cannabis laws. If you live in the US, chances are you've heard something about the conflict between federal law and the numerous states that have adopted their own medical cannabis laws. By taking advantage of our federalist form of government, those states have chosen to implement a set of laws that depart from federal policy.
Unfortunately, the federal government continues to push back against the proven medical value of cannabis, abusing its prosecutorial discretion by targeting patients and their providers even in states that have adopted their own laws. Hundreds of thousands of sick and injured Americans are caught in the middle of that epic battle.
Every war has casualties and a price tag. The war on medical cannabis is no different. It's not simply a battle of politics and laws that takes place in legislatures and courtrooms. It is a war that is being waged in our neighborhoods on a daily basis, adversely affecting millions of people every year, and costing the U.S. taxpayers hundreds of million dollars. Yet patients will not be deterred. As long as research supports the therapeutic value of cannabis and physicians continue to recommend it in order to treat the symptoms of serious and chronic illnesses, patients will seek it out.
Each of the individuals profiled in this report diligently followed state law and/or the advice of a physician. It is our hope that by putting a human face on this issue, we can stop these expensive and harmful attacks, and inspire sensible policy reform aimed at harmonizing state and federal laws.
In addition to exposing the cost of the federal government's enforcement actions, I want to acknowledge the scores of Americans who have stood up in the face of this misguided policy to demand compassion, scientific integrity, and respect for the will of the people. They have inspired a nation to change. My heart goes out to all the individuals profiled in this report, as well as their families, and all those who have suffered in silence.
Together, as a nation, we must change federal law so that our sick and dying can battle their illnesses instead of their government.
It is Time for Peace for Patients!
Wake Up Obama: Medical Marijuana Patients Are Voters
This is a photo of me at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. I had just heard one of the most politically motivating speeches of my life from a candidate for president. I was moved to tears, joyous, and inspired. This candidate not only filled me with hope about the future of our nation, but said he would not interfere with access to legal medical cannabis.
As Executive Director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), I was ecstatic to be shedding the dark days of the Bush Administration's war on medical cannabis patients. As a patient myself, I felt counted and part of the Change that would be coming to Washington, and I was proud to support and volunteer for Barack Obama's victorious campaign.
For his 2008 campaign, I donated money, I went to rallies to show support, I knocked on doors in VA, and on election night I joined thousands in D.C. who descended on the White House to celebrate and sing "Na, Na, Na, Na, Good bye" to President Bush. I went to sleep that night excited about a new direction for this country that would include me as a recognized medical cannabis patient.
From the beginning, the new administration made supportive statements about medical cannabis, including that the President was "not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws." On October 19, 2009, we got the policy document we had been waiting for. Then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden issued a memorandum, now know as the "Ogden Memo," instructing U.S. attorneys to limit marijuana enforcement to those operating out of compliance with state law.
With this legal guidance, the medical cannabis movement went to work to pass new state laws protecting patients and those who provided their medication. Advocates, community members and officials spent thousands of hours drafting legislation and regulations in at least eleven states. But when legislators and other state and local officials came close to passing or implementing these laws, they received letters from U.S. attorneys, threatening federal arrest and prosecution.
Dismayed by this apparent reversal in the Obama Administration's policy, patients demanded the president rein in the US Attorneys. Instead we got the "Cole Memo," issued by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, laying out a new interpretation of the Obama Administration's policy. The memo gave the Justice Department free rein in medical cannabis states, to undermine state laws and coerce local lawmakers. The Cole Memo launched an unprecedented attack on the medical cannabis community unprecedented in its scope.
In fewer then fours years of President Obama, we have seen more raids on dispensaries than during the Bush Administration's entire eight-year tenure. The Obama Administration has taken property from landlords, threatened local officials, forced the release of patient records, used the Internal Revenue Service to bankrupt legitimate dispensaries, told banks to purge medical cannabis clients, evicted patients from low-income housing and denied a petition to recognize the well-established medical value of cannabis.
Now as President Obama approaches the vote on his reelection, other medical cannabis patients and I are finding it impossible to renew our support. How can I vote for someone who has broken his promise? How can I vote for someone who can't see very real public health needs? How can I vote for someone who wages war on my fellow patients and me?
There are more than one million legal medical cannabis patients across the country and millions more waiting to become legal. We have friends and family in every state, and there are many of us in states that are key to the Obama reelection campaign: Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
I care a lot about this country and my fellow Americans, and I have always volunteered for candidates during election years. Now, instead of going to rallies or buying tickets to fundraisers, I will be protesting at campaign stops like the one today in downtown Oakland. Instead of working to elect a president, I'll be joining thousands of medical cannabis advocates at Camp Wakeupobama, a virtual summer camp during which we will press our case to the President.
President Obama, you can move medical cannabis policy forward and win this election -- 74% of voters disagree with your attacks on state compassionate use laws.
Medical cannabis patients will be on the campaign trail, however you can still determine what our signs will say.