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Medical Marijuana - New Boss tells DEA to Back Down
by Dr. Rick Bayer

US Attorney General Eric Holder recently signaled federal changes in medical marijuana policy. Holder said, “The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law”; but the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) will still target anyone who tries to “use medical marijuana laws as a shield” for other illegal activity. “Given the limited resources that we have, our focus will be on people, organizations that are growing, cultivating substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that’s inconsistent with federal and state law.”

“... federal and state law ...”

Many have been waiting for a statement regarding President Obama’s drug policy toward medical marijuana, since Candidate Obama repeatedly promised changes in federal policy toward medical marijuana states. Now, in Attorney General Holder’s statement, they have it. Graham Boyd, director of the American Civil Liberties Union drug law project, said Mr. Holder’s remarks create reasonable balance between conflicting state and federal law while finally ending the policy war over medical marijuana.

Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, said Mr. Holder’s statement signaled a shift in policy by telling the DEA that it should leave alone legitimate medical cannabis growers. “Attorney General Holder is saying something explicitly different from both Bush and Clinton,” Nadelmann said. “He’s saying that these medical marijuana laws are kosher by state law and we’re not going after those. He’s saying federal law doesn’t trump state laws on this.”

Naturally, federal law enforcement has its own interpretation. DEA spokesperson, Garrison Courtney, pointed out that Mr. Holder’s statement indicated that federal authorities would continue to go after marijuana dispensaries that break state and federal laws by selling to minors, selling excessive amounts or selling marijuana from unsanctioned growers.

DEA:Occupying Foreign Army
Meanwhile, recently, the DEA ransacked a dispensary that had violated no state laws according to California authorities. Tellingly, local law enforcement did not participate in the raid, while local authorities condemned the DEA for it.

Although thirteen states permit medicinal use of marijuana, California is unique, allowing dispensaries to sell marijuana to qualified patients. US attorney for Los Angeles, Thom Mrozek, said his office has prosecuted only four medical marijuana dispensary cases since the passage of Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot measure that legalized medical marijuana in California. What he failed to say was the feds can’t count on jury convictions because most Californians see the DEA as an occupying foreign army. Therefore, the DEA uses vandalism of dispensaries and forfeiture threats rather than typical police arrests to curtail cannabis sales. As a result marijuana prohibition has changed community policing into snitch-based paramilitary combat against American citizens.

Special Interest Lobby: Marijuana
Mark Agrast, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank in Washington DC, said Mr. Holder’s statement indicated a more pragmatic and less ideological approach to drug enforcement. “This is an example of recognizing the limited resources they have, so they have to make decisions about the soundest use of available resources.”

If only it were as easy as pointing to limited resources and using tax dollars more wisely. The reality is that law enforcement is a powerful special interest lobby and marijuana prohibition is a huge budget item for these lobbyists to lose. Unfortunately, politicians are swayed by this lobby and do not want to appear “soft on crime”. So the public must say NO to the war on medical marijuana and give lawmakers the courage to end medical marijuana prohibition.

Moreover, states should be laboratories to seek solutions that allow for medical needs, personal privacy, and industrial use of cannabis. Public safety must be guided by science rather than hysterical presentations from law enforcement and other reefer-madness special interest groups. But first of all, the DEA must end the ransacking of marijuana dispensaries that comply with local regulations.

It will take time to see what impact the Obama presidency has on medical marijuana. Voters must remind Obama they want peace and prosperity rather than spending tax revenue to persecute the sick. Less federal interference in state medical marijuana laws may lead to greater scrutiny from state and local regulators. Advocates need to be alert to negotiate fair regulations that advocate for patients while recognizing concerns of the community.

One hopes the signal from Washington DC resonates in Oregon so state lawmakers respect Oregon voters when we said in 1998 that marijuana should be treated like other medicines. Advocates for medical marijuana are growing stronger and our cause is just. But for us to win the peace; we must engage in politics, tirelessly advocate for the sick, and consistently support our allies.

Rick Bayer, MD is board-certified in internal medicine, a fellow in the American College of Physicians, and practiced in Oregon for many years. Co-author of Is Marijuana the Right Medicine For You? A Factual Guide to Medical Uses of Marijuana, he was the filing chief petitioner for the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act in 1998, and manages www.omma1998.org that includes a medical cannabis/marijuana bibliography.


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