44 taking heat from advocates


Medical marijuana advocates criticize Obama


Medical marijuana advocates have reacted angrily to reports of the Obama administration threatening dispensaries, including some in the Bay Area. California voters passed a medical marijuana law in 1996, and many people use the drug to help ease pain related to HIV and AIDS and other illnesses.

But in recent weeks, federal prosecutors have announced broad prosecutions against medical marijuana dispensaries across California, reportedly threatening landlords with eviction, property seizures, and imprisonment.

The federal government’s stance flies in the face of California law. In 1996, voters passed Proposition 215, the California Compassionate Use Act, which regulates medical marijuana. The federal government does not recognize Prop 215 or similar laws in more than a dozen other states and Washington, D.C.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and state Senator Mark Leno, both out gay Democrats from San Francisco, held a press conference Wednesday, October 19, to call for an end to the federal crackdown.

In a recent statement, Ammiano said the Department of Justice’s stance means “a tragic return to failed policies that will cost the state millions in tax revenue and harm countless lives.”

He continued, “Whatever happened to the promises [Obama] made on the campaign trail to not prosecute medical marijuana or the 2009 DOJ memo saying that states with medical marijuana laws would not be prosecuted? Change we can believe in? Instead we get more of the same.

In early 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signaled that the Obama administration would not target patients and providers in the states with medical marijuana laws.

In a phone interview last week, Ammiano said, “I’m an Obama supporter, and that’s how it is and I’m not going to change.” However, he said, “We’re very, very angry” about the administration’s actions.

“How many death beds have we all sat by?” where marijuana’s relieved some symptoms, he said. He said the feds are “going to have a fight on their hands.” Ammiano said he planned to meet with Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) to discuss the issue.

In a statement Wednesday, Leno said, “I urge the federal government to stand down in its massive attack on medical marijuana dispensaries, which will have devastating impacts for the state of California.

In an interview earlier this week, Leno said, “Whereas the federal government is saying that their interest is just large operators with for-profit models making millions of dollars,” that’s not the profile of Charley Pappas, board chair of San Francisco’s Divinity Tree Patients’ Wellness Cooperative.

Pappas said the “very supportive” landlord for their Geary Street operation received a 45-day notice from the federal government September 28. He wasn’t immediately able to provide a copy of the letter, but said it threatened forfeiture and prison, among other things.

Pappas said the club’s patients include people with HIV and AIDS and military veterans.

Leno said his “top concern” is “safe and affordable access for medicine the voters of California have stated they want available.”

“I would suggest the federal government focus on the real problems affecting Americans: lack of jobs, a home foreclosure crisis that has yet to stabilize, and two unfunded wars. This is a waste of time,” he added.

Gregory Ledbetter, a 48-year-old, gay San Francisco resident, has been a medical marijuana patient for several years but said he’s not a member of one particular club. He said marijuana is usually donated to him through Axis of Love, which works to help people such as disabled medical cannabis patients of San Francisco.

“Our access is pretty well secured,” he said, but he was concerned by what he called Obama’s “deceit.” Ledbetter was one of several people who rallied outside the old Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue to protest a raid on Northstone Organics Cooperative.

The co-op’s website said they’re closed due to a federal raid where their “entire crop was eradicated.”

Matt Cohen, Northstone’s executive director, said in a phone interview that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency had come with a federal search warrant. He didn’t know when his operation would open again.

He said hundreds of their members have AIDS, and his co-op is “unique.” They had a licensed farm in Mendocino where their product “was sustainably grown with organic nutrients. The members knew what they were getting. They were getting it direct from the farm,” and Northstone’s product was “also very affordable,” he said. Cohen said there are “probably” alternatives, but he didn’t know whether those options are safe or of the same quality.

Jack Gillund, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, said in an emailed response to a question from the Bay Area Reporter, “The Department of Justice, which is committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act, is focusing its limited resources on significant drug traffickers. Individuals involved in the commercial cultivation and distribution of marijuana, remain a core priority.  We are not directing our limited resources toward individuals with serious illnesses, or their individual caregivers, who use marijuana based on a doctor’s recommendation.”

But in an October 7 press conference made available via phone, a U.S. attorney in California declined to pledge that patients wouldn’t be prosecuted, and said, “I cannot give them that assurance. I’m not in a position to overrule federal law.”

In a phone interview this week, Shin Inouye, Obama’s director of specialty media, refused to discuss the situation, since it involves “a very explicit” Department of Justice action. He wouldn’t say why the president isn’t intervening, and referred questions to the DOJ.