Making sense of Obama admin’s unsteady medical marijuana policy
Would you like some irony with that baggie of medical marijuana? Well, like it or not, you’re getting some. Medical marijuana has been legal for a decade or so in various U.S. states but it wasn’t until the Ogden memo of 2009 that it really took off.
That was the memo from the Department of Justice that states and medical marijuana providers took to mean the feds would stand down and look the other way as long as medical marijuana patients and providers were in clear compliance with state laws.
Then somebody at the Department of Justice apparently decided that maybe it wasn’t cool for the feds to look the other way as states began flaunting their defiance of the Controlled Substances Act, and medical marijuana states got a raft of new letters from new DOJ attorneys, culminating in the Cole memo which said that state laws are not a defense when it comes to breaking federal laws.
So, on the one hand you have the Department of Justice essentially launching the medical marijuana boom with a memo that seemed to spell out the fact that the nation’s top law enforcement agency would respect state law and pretty much stay out of medical marijuana. Then, on the other hand you have that same agency saying “Now, wait a minute, that’s not what we meant at all.”
“It is very disappointing that the Obama Administration has backed off significantly from what they promised. (Attorney General Eric) Holder was very clear earlier that the Ogden memo applied to entities such as dispensaries and not just to patients,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policy for the Marijuana Policy Project, in Washington, D.C.
As people in the medical marijuana field look from the Ogden memo to the Cole memo, their moods darken.
In October 2009, medical marijuana advocates celebrated a U.S. Department of Justice memo declaring that federal authorities wouldn’t target the legal use of medicinal pot in states where it is permitted.
The memo from Deputy U.S. Attorney General David Ogden was credited with accelerating a California medical marijuana boom, including a proliferation of dispensaries that now handle more than $1 billion in pot transactions.
But last month brought a new memo from another deputy attorney general, James Cole. And this time, it is stirring industry fears of federal raids on pot dispensaries and sweeping crackdowns on large-scale medical pot cultivation.
Cole asserted in the June 29 memo that state laws “are not a defense” from federal prosecution, saying, “Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug” – and that distributing it “is a serious crime.”
It isn’t just the vague threat to crack down on medical marijuana providers that concerns people, as it is the overall disconnect.
Most recently, the Drug Enforcement Administration rejected a formal citizen petition filed nine years ago to reschedule marijuana to make it available for medical use. When the DEA considered a similar petition during the Reagan administration, the agency’s administrative law judge concluded, “Marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people.” The Obama administration’s rejection of the petition claims marijuana “has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States … lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision… [and] has a high potential for abuse.” Lest one think the DEA’s ruling is just law enforcement run amok, the White House released its 2011 National Drug Control Strategy earlier this week, calling marijuana “addictive and unsafe.” That document devotes five pages attacking marijuana legalization and medical marijuana.
The administration’s disconnect from science is shocking. A federally commissioned study by the Institute of Medicine more than a decade ago determined that nausea, appetite loss, pain and anxiety “all can be mitigated by marijuana.” The esteemed medical journal the Lancet Neurology reports that marijuana’s active components “inhibit pain in virtually every experimental pain paradigm.” The National Cancer Institute, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notes that marijuana may help with nausea, loss of appetite, pain and insomnia. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia, home to 90 million Americans, have adopted laws allowing the medical use of marijuana to treat AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and other ailments. The federal government itself cultivates and supplies marijuana to a handful of patients through its “compassionate-use investigative new drug program,” which was established in 1978 but closed to new patients in 1992.
“It’s an outrageous betrayal. It’s anti-scientific to claim marijuana has no medical value,” O’Keefe told the Colorado Independent. “Half a million Americans use medical marijuana, recommended by their physicians to alleviate pain. There’s never been a known overdose. It’s less addictive than alcohol.”
She said Obama has turned his back on his campaign promises and left medical marijuana states looking at a federal law enforcement situation that is “clear as mud.”
Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, agreed.
“With each new memo President Obama seems to be getting further away from his campaign promise to allow states to take the lead on medical marijuana policy. Paradoxically, his views reaffirm protections for medical marijuana patients, while threatening larger producers who provide medicine to those very patients. It seems Obama would prefer patients to get medicine from the black market as opposed to obtaining it from strictly regulated and taxed providers who are licensed under state law.”