Reefer Madness: Medi-Pot States Free to Inhale

It's official: The feds are backing off

Reefer Madness: Medi-Pot States Free to Inhale
Illustration by Leah Sharpe

More than six months after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters that the feds would end their raids and prosecutions of medical marijuana patients, the promise has finally been put on paper and sent out as a policy memorandum addressed to federal prosecutors in the 13 states where the medicinal use of marijuana is legal.

The memo, penned by Deputy A.G. David Ogden and sent out Oct. 19, advises federal prosecutors to focus pot investigations and prosecutions on "core federal enforcement priorities." The Department of Justice is "committed" to enforcing the federal prohibition scheme codified in the Controlled Substances Act – and marijuana distribution in the U.S. is the "single largest source of revenue for the Mexican cartels," writes Ogden. But in an effort to make "efficient and rational use" of "limited" funds, "as a general matter" the DOJ policy now states that those funds should not be spent to pursue "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."

States With Medi-Pot Laws: In the 13 states where the medicinal use of marijuana is legal, federal law enforcement will no longer interfere with legal marijuana use.<p>
Legal medical use: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington</p><p>
Bills Pending: New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Illinois</p>
States With Medi-Pot Laws: In the 13 states where the medicinal use of marijuana is legal, federal law enforcement will no longer interfere with legal marijuana use.

Legal medical use: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington

Bills Pending: New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Illinois

The policy makes final a campaign promise made by President Barack Obama; nonetheless, in the weeks after Obama's inauguration, raids of California medi-pot dispensaries by the Drug Enforcement Administration had picked up. In February, Holder promised the practice would not be ongoing: "What the president said during the campaign, you'll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we'll be doing here in law enforcement." Now, it appears that will be the case.

According to the memo, people using pot in compliance with state laws should not be put in the crosshairs of federal law enforcers. "For example, prosecution of individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana ... or those caregivers in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state law who provide such individuals with marijuana, is unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources," reads the memo. "On the other hand," it continues, prosecution of "commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell" dope outside the state-sanctioned schemes will not get a pass – and, Ogden's memo notes, there are those who will use the state medi-mari laws as a "mask" for illegal operations, "and federal law enforcement should not be deterred by such assertions when otherwise pursuing the Department's core enforcement priorities." Unlawful possession or use of a firearm, selling to minors, and employing violence are all among "characteristics" that "may indicate illegal drug trafficking activity of potential federal interest."

Pot-law reformers were, not surprisingly, pleased with the memo, but Texas' own GOP U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith was not. Smith, who is a ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, instead felt that championing prohibition and sacrificing states' rights was the way to go – a rather ironic position for any Republican, let alone Central Texas' Smith, who told San Antonio's KSAT news in September that medical decisions should be made by the individual and not the government. Moreover, he said he was against Obama's health care reform because it would cost too much and do too little. (As opposed to the drug war, which, ahem, has done so much with so little?) The new policy, Smith said in a statement, was as good as telling federal narcos to ignore federal drug laws. As a result, he said, the Obama administration is "tacitly condoning the use of marijuana in the U.S." and undermining the plan to attack Mexican drug cartels. (How that would be the case is unknown since the pot that is legal for medical marijuana must be grown and used in-state.) The way to "win the war on drugs," he opined, is to get the narcos to "investigate and prosecute all medical marijuana dispensaries and not just those that are merely fronts for illegal distribution."

Meanwhile, medi-pot-law advocates say that instituting the new policy is likely to help laws pass in additional states. "Federal hostility is an objection" to passing medi-mari laws, wrote Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, in an e-mail. The objection "is constantly raised by legislators and governors, either in the form of (unfounded) fear that states would be violating federal law, or that they would be setting up their citizens for federal prosecution," he continued. Bills are currently pending in four states: New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More medical marijuana
Medical Marijuana Advocates Look to 2019 Lege for Program Improvements
Medical Marijuana Advocates Look to 2019 Lege for Program Improvements
Barriers in a budding industry

Mary Tuma, Aug. 31, 2018

Snapshot: Compassionate Cultivation
Snapshot: Compassionate Cultivation
“Snapshot” speaks with some of the young people whose lives are being changed with the use of medical cannabis

David Brendan Hall, April 20, 2018

More Reefer Madness
Reefer Madness: Teens Still Smoke Pot
Reefer Madness: Teens Still Smoke Pot
Would legalization lead to a decline?

Jordan Smith, Dec. 27, 2013

Reefer Madness: Drug Court: No Silver Bullet
Reefer Madness: Drug Court: No Silver Bullet
If drug court isn't the answer, what is?

Jordan Smith, April 29, 2011

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

medical marijuana, Eric Holder, David Ogden, Drug Enforcement Administration, Lamar Smith, Barack Obama

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle