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Another Medical Marijuana Raid in California

This is interesting/disturbing:

Kern Sheriff’s deputies and agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency were searching a medical marijuana store in east Bakersfield Wednesday afternoon.

Calls to the sheriff’s department were not immediately returned. A spokesman from the DEA said that agency was there only to assist. The spokesman said the sheriff’s department was the lead agency in the case.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood said his office will not interfere with the operation of non-profit medical co-operatives run by patients for patients. But, he said, dispensaries that sell marijuana for a profit should be expected to be treated like other drug dealers. [KGET]

DEA explained that they're "only there to assist," but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of federal charges down the road. This isn’t the first time DEA has "assisted" local law enforcement during a dispensary raid. I just spoke with Caren Woodson at Americans for Safe Access and they're waiting to learn more about the situation.

I'll update as details emerge.

Update: ASA just informed me that this appears to be a DEA raid being assisted by local authorities, rather than the other way around.

Update 2: Turns out it really was a state raid, based on a state warrant. ASA got some mixed messages from the PR dept. at DEA.

Sentencing: Obama Administration Tells Congress to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

In a break with the Bush administration, Justice Department officials called Wednesday for the first time for Congress to pass legislation that would undo the vast disparities in sentences for those convicted of crack and powder cocaine possession offenses. For years, drug reformers, civil rights groups, and even the US Sentencing Commission have called for the disparities to be undone, saying they have had a racially disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities.
Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) opens the hearing
Under federal sentencing laws adopted in the midst of the crack hysteria of the 1980s, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to generate a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to generate the same sentence. Historically, blacks have accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack convictions, with whites accounting for less than 10%.

Competing bills have been introduced to eliminate or reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, but in previous years they have not gotten far. With the administration now behind eliminating the disparity, this year could be different.

Justice Department Criminal Division Chief Lanny Breuer told a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee Wednesday that the administration supported bills that would equalize punishments for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The disparity should be "completely eliminated," he said.

"Now is the time for us to reexamine federal cocaine sentencing policy, from the perspective of both fundamental fairness and safety," Breuer told the Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs. He added that a Justice Department panel is reviewing a broad range of criminal justice topics, including sentencing reforms.

It's about time, said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), the Senate majority whip, citing the racially disproportionate crack conviction figures. "These racial disparities profoundly undermine trust in our criminal justice system and have a deeply corrosive effect on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities," Durbin said.

US District Judge Reggie Walton, representing the Judicial Conference, also addressed the committee. The crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is "one of the most important issues confronting the criminal justice system today," he said. "No one can appreciate the agony of having to enforce a law that one believes to be fundamentally unfair to individuals who look like me," said the judge, who is black.

Sentencing reform advocacy groups were also on hand for the hearing. Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) told the subcommittee the sentencing disparity has a discriminatory impact on blacks, including people like FAMM client Eugenia Jennings, now serving a 20-year prison sentence for twice trading small amounts of crack for designer clothes.

"This hearing gives new hope to thousands who have loved ones serving harsh sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses," Price said.

Even former DEA head and enthusiastic drug warrior Asa Hutchinson had little good to say about the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. "When significant numbers of African Americans on the street question the fairness of our criminal justice system, then it becomes more difficult for the officer on the street to do his or her duty under the law," Hutchinson said.

A number of bills have been filed in both the House and the Senate to address the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Now, the fight will be to ensure that eliminating the disparity means reducing crack sentences, not increasing powder ones.

Click here to view archived video of the hearing.

Feature: Mexico's Congress Hosts Forum on Marijuana Regulation, Decriminalization

President Obama flew into Mexico City Thursday to, among other things, restate his support for the existing drug war paradigm as he reiterated his backing for Mexican President Felipe Calderón's bloody war against Mexico's wealthy, powerful, and violent drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels. It's too bad he didn't schedule his trip for a few days earlier, because then he could have seen a new drug policy paradigm being born.

Earlier in the week, the Mexican Congress held a three-day debate on the merits of decriminalizing the personal use of marijuana. The debate, known as the Forums on the Regulation of Cannabis in Mexico, brought together government officials, elected representatives, academics and experts in a lively discussion of Mexican marijuana policy.

Although Mexico is a socially conservative country, and marijuana use is popularly -- if unfairly -- associated with lower-class criminality, the blood-stained fall-out from President Calderón's war against the cartels is creating social and political space for reform discussions that would have been impossible a decade ago. Since Calderón unleashed the Mexican army against the cartels at the beginning of 2007, the death toll has climbed to more than 10,000, and the spectacular, exemplary violence has shocked Mexican society.

While President Calderón has proposed legislation that would offer pot smokers treatment instead of jail, Calderón and his ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN) have stopped short of calling for legalization or decriminalization. The left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) supports decriminalization, while the smaller Social Democratic Party (PSD) has called for the decriminalization of the possession of all drugs.

In 2006, Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, moved to pass decriminalization legislation. But he pulled the bill after being pressured by the US.

While Obama has not weighed in on marijuana legalization or decriminalization in Mexico, the DEA has. Either course would mark "a failure" of US and Mexican drug policy, DEA chief of intelligence Anthony Placido told El Universal Wednesday. "The legalization of marijuana in Mexico would create more misery and more addicts," he said. Nor would it weaken the cartels, he argued; instead, they would simply shift their attention to other illegal activities.
''Global Marijuana Day'' demonstration in Mexico City, May 2008
PSD Deputy Elsa Conde last year introduced three bills that would legalize medical marijuana, legalize hemp, and decriminalize marijuana possession, but the debate in Congress this week does not pertain to any particular piece of legislation. Instead, it lays the groundwork for future policy changes. Lawmakers have said they wanted to hear various viewpoints before considering any changes in the law.

Even the ruling PAN appears open to some sort of reform. "It's clear that a totally prohibitive policy has not been a solution for all ills," said Interior Department official Blanca Heredia. "At the same time, it's illusory to imagine that complete legalization of marijuana would be a panacea."

When it came to marijuana, said Heredia, neither total legalization nor prohibition should be the policy, but something in between. "Every new solution is necessarily partial," she said. "Every decision runs risks and brings with it new problems. We have to try to balance things carefully, to rigorously analyze the impact that different proposals would have on the drug market and the organized crime industry."

Javier González Garza, leader of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) in the Chamber of Deputies, said that while he favored decriminalizing marijuana, the topic should be discussed separately from other types of drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, and the synthetics.

"What we don't want is the criminalization of our youth for consuming or carrying marijuana," said González. "That is the central point. If we made consuming or carrying marijuana a serious crime, there aren't enough jails in Mexico to hold everybody."

While the politicians talked politics, others took the discussion to loftier realms. Philosopher Rodolfo Vázquez Cardoso questioned whether it is ethically justifiable to criminalize the possession of drugs for personal use. He noted that while the theme of most discussion was the harmful effects of drug use, the central theme should instead be that of freedom.

"There is no legitimate objective of the judicial system to promote good living or virtue because that enters into conflict with the capacity of each individual to choose freely and rationally how to live his life and choose the ideals of virtue in accord with his own preferences," said Vázquez. Drug prohibition, he added, is based on "repressive paternalism" and violates the principle of personal autonomy.

For Ana Paula Hernández of the Angélica Foundation, human rights and the rule of law were key concerns. She cited the "unmeasured militarization of the country as a consequence of the war against organized crime" and warned that those most affected by the drug war were the poor peasant communities that were "the weakest link" of the drug production chain.

"These ideas about controlling prohibited drugs are innovative," said political scientist and drug policy expert Luis Astorga. "When it comes to drugs, we don't have to follow the path of the United States, which hasn't worked. We need to develop ideas and policies distinct from those of the US. We have a very good opportunity to do something independent, as they have in Europe and Canada," he said.

But Armando Patrón Vargas of the National Council Against Addiction in the Health Department said decriminalization wasn't necessary because Mexico doesn't criminalize drug addiction. "I don't see any urgent need to modify the status [of marijuana] and decriminalize use," he told the forum. The Mexican government guarantees treatment of addicts, he said, even if the investment in treatment is inadequate.

Dr. Humberto Brocca, a student of herbal and traditional medicine and a member of the pro-reform Grupo Cáñamo (Cannabis Group) told the forum it was time to end the prejudice and social stigma against pot smokers and urged legislators to be fearless in moving toward regulation "because fear is not a good advisor."

Brocca told the Chronicle Wednesday that while he did not expect quick change in the drug laws, the forum was a start. "It means that society is demanding some truth about important issues," he said.

Even the half-measure of decriminalization would make a big difference, he said. "It would take cannabis out of the criminal circuit and it would lower prices and guarantee good quality," Brocca said. "It would also remove cannabis from its role of rebellious banner for youth, thus making it less attractive for them. It would also help law enforcement to not waste its time on petty issues and focus on important ones, like going after the traffickers. And it would liberate the many people who currently serve time for nothing."

Mexico's lawmakers have had their chance to discuss marijuana law reform. Now it is time to craft and pass the necessary legislation to put those reforms in place. But with mid-term elections coming up in a couple of months, little is likely to happen before then.

DEA Ignores New Policy, Raids SF Medical Marijuana Dispensary

DEA Ignores Policy, Raids San Francisco Dispensary
Raids Defy U.S. President and Attorney General, and need your response!

Dear ASA Supporter,

We never expected that the DEA would defy the public statements of both the U.S. President and the Attorney General in such an arrogant and brazen way.

And yet yesterday, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided a legal, permitted San Francisco medical cannabis dispensing collective against the will of the President and the Department of Justice... and we need you to respond RIGHT NOW!

In early February national media attention exploded around statements from a White House spokesperson and from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, telling the press that DEA raids would no longer continue, and that an end to such raids, according to Holder, was “now U.S. policy.”

And DEA's response?

They thumbed their noses at the President and immediately raided a legal dispensing collective and, according to the San Francisco Police, did not even inform local cops! DEA claimed that the permit-holding dispensary was "violating state law," but went on to say that evidence was "under seal" and could not be shared with the public.

The DEA is out of line and out of control, and this raid is nothing if not vindictive. Even if there was a violation of state law:

1. Why where there no arrests?
2. Why were local cops not involved?
3. Why are United States Federal Agents interpreting and enforcing California state law without consulting California officials?
4. Why was the collective not given due process through the proper authorities, but rather ransacked with a "smash and grab" raid?

DEA has twisted the words of the U.S. Attorney General, and thought that by saying publicly "they violated state law" that they could continue raiding whenever they want. Well that doesn’t fly. We DEMAND that the DEA stop immediately, and that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder reprimand DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart for her blatant insubordination and violation of the “new American policy.”

Now it's up to you, and all it takes is two phone calls, one to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and the other straight to the DEA.

Please call the U.S. Attorney General at (202) 353-1555 and say:

Hi, my name is _____________. First I want to thank you for your numerous public statements verifying the end of DEA raids on legal medical marijuana dispensaries in California. But on Wednesday the DEA went against your word and the word of the President of the United States by raiding a permitted dispensary in San Francisco. We respectfully demand that you issue a statement condemning and officially ending these raids until the Obama Administration has had a chance to review the new policy.

When you’re done, call the DEA at (202) 307-8000, ask for Administrator Michele Leonhart, and say:

Hi, my name is ___________. The U.S. Attorney General and the President of the United States have both made high-profile public statements, saying DEA raids on legal medical marijuana dispensaries is no longer U.S. policy. Yet your DEA raided a legal, permit-holding San Francisco dispensary yesterday, in conflict with these statements. This disgraceful and anti-democratic. Why is your agency not listening to the policy statements of our elected leaders and your boss? Is this how you'll run DEA if you are appointed in the Obama Administration? We demand that you STOP it immediately!


George Pappas
Field Coordinator
Americans for Safe Access

P.S. Please forward this message to all your friends and family so that we can generate a response big enough to get officials to act!

San Francisco, CA
United States

Medical Marijuana: In Wake of Holder Comments, Federal Judge Postpones Sentencing of California Medical Marijuana Provider Charles Lynch

Charles Lynch expected to be sentenced to a mandatory minimum federal prison term Monday for operating a medical marijuana dispensary legal under state and local laws, but it didn't happen. Instead, US District Court Judge George Wu postponed the proceedings, telling prosecutors he wanted more information about what appears to be a Justice Department change of heart and policy regarding such prosecutions.
Charlie Lynch (from
Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would only prosecute medical marijuana providers who violated both state and federal law. Lynch's case is one where he was clearly in compliance with state law in operating his Morro Bay dispensary.

Under Bush administration policy, which did not recognize any distinction between medical and non-medical marijuana, California dispensary operators were targeted for DEA raids and federal prosecutions with no regard for their compliance with state laws. Prosecutions like those of Lynch, who was found guilty in federal court last August, generated loud and boisterous solidarity movements, protests, and scorn toward the federal government.

Judge Wu said he did not believe the apparent change in policy would affect Lynch's conviction, but he said he wanted to consider any new information about the policy change before he imposed sentence on the 47-year-old Lynch.

Federal marijuana law calls for mandatory minimum sentences in cases involving more than 100 pounds or plants, as was the case with Lynch. We can only hope, given the apparent turnaround in federal policy, that Judge Wu finds a way to make his sentence fit the new reality.

Feature: Failed Drug War Policies in Mexico? Let's Try More of the Same

Mexico and its wave of prohibition-related violence were front and center in Washington this week as the Obama administration unveiled its "comprehensive response and commitment" to US-Mexico border security and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico to preach renewed support in the fight against the powerful drug trafficking organizations, but also to enunciate a mea culpa for the US role in the bloody situation.
US Border Patrol
More than 9,000 people -- including more than 600 police and soldiers -- have been killed in prohibition-related violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon sent out the Mexican armed forces to subdue the cartels at the beginning of 2007, with the pace of killing accelerating last year and early this year. Now, some 45,000 Mexican army troops are part of the campaign, including more than 8,000 that are currently occupying Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, which has seen some of the highest levels of violence anywhere in the country. More than 1,600 were killed there last year, and more than a hundred so far this year.

Calderon intervened in ongoing rivalries between various trafficking organizations, helping to turn what had been turf wars for valuable drug smuggling franchises into a multi-sided battle pitching the cartels against each other and Mexican police and soldiers. The prize is a cross-border smuggling fortune estimated at anywhere between $10 billion and $40 billion and based on Americans' insatiable appetite for the drugs it loves to hate (or hates to love).

On Tuesday, the White House presented its plan to secure the border, including the disbursement of $700 million in previously authorized Plan Merida assistance to Mexico, ramped up enforcement on the US side of the border, and an increased emphasis on demand reduction in the US.

The Plan Merida aid will provide surveillance and information technologies, training for rule of law and justice reform, assistance to Mexican prosecutors in crafting effective witness protection programs, and five helicopters for the Mexican Army and Air Force and a surveillance aircraft for the Mexican Navy. Here in the US, the Department of Homeland Security is bringing its numerous resources to bear, including doubling Border Enforcement Security Task Forces, tripling the number of DHS intelligence analysts working the border, beefing up Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff in Mexico, bringing more surveillance technology to ports of entry, bringing more drug dogs to the border, and targeting flows of guns and money south as well as drugs north.

The DEA is adding 16 new agents on the border to its current 1,170 already there and forming four new Mobile Enforcement Teams to go after Mexican meth traffickers, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is moving 100 agents to the border and continuing its program of tracing guns used in drug cartel violence. Even the FBI is getting in on the act by forming a Southwest Intelligence Group to act as a clearinghouse for all FBI activities involving Mexico.

"The whole package we announced today is not only about enforcement and stopping the flow of drugs into the United States and helping Mexico against these very brutal cartels, but it includes money for more drug courts and reduction in demand," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in an interview Tuesday. "So, we look forward to working on the demand side as well as the supply side, but I'll tell you, where the Department of Homeland Security is concerned, it's all about border safety and security and making sure that spillover violence does not erupt in our own country."

Secretary of State Clinton sang much the same tune in Mexico this week, but also bluntly accepted US responsibility for the violence, saying that decades of US anti-drug policies have been a failure and that US demand for drugs drove the trade.

"Clearly what we've been doing has not worked," Clinton told reporters on her plane at the start of her two-day trip. "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," she added. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police, of soldiers and civilians."

Clinton's visit came as the chorus calling for change in US prohibitionist drug policies is growing louder. Last month, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico called on the US to radically reassess its drug policies, and increasing concern over the violence in Mexico and its spillover in US border states is only turning up the volume of the calls for legalization.

Law enforcement on the border wants much more help -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has called for 1,000 more agents or even National Guard troops -- but Zapata County (Texas) Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, Jr., head of the Southwestern Border Sheriff's Association, said the administration move was a start. "The plan the president announced is a help," said Gonzalez. "But we still haven't seen the plan that was supposed to be in place last year."

Gonzalez's remote Zapata County has not seen much spillover from the violence across the river, but that's not the case elsewhere, the sheriff said. "As chairman of the association, I hear regularly from my colleagues that what we are seeing is spillover that has been going on for some time -- extortions, kidnapping, robberies. What we're concerned with now is that with the squeeze on in Mexico, there will be even more spillover here."

While security officials and law enforcement were talking more drug war, other observers doubted that the initiative would have much impact on the cartels and could make an intractable problem even worse. But they also saw an opportunity to advance the cause of ending America's reliance on drug prohibition as the primary approach to drug use.

"This is not a major departure from what was budgeted under the Bush administration," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The most important assistance the US can provide is intelligence-related assets, as in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s -- CIA or NSA-type information that helps the Mexicans target the most violent and powerful of the traffickers. Providing financial assistance to help pay local police more is also helpful, but beefing up the border is largely symbolic and is responding to both legitimate concerns as well as media and political hysteria around this. This is not a departure, not a major new initiative."

"The biggest problem in all this is that Calderon's policies have thrown gasoline on the fire," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. "It was utterly foolish of Calderon to get in the middle of a cartel turf war. Those people are all about making money, and the violence isn't going to decline until the cartels reach a modus vivendi among themselves. There are rumors they are trying to do that; they want the killing to stop so they can get back to business."

Neither should we take much comfort in Mexico's ability to occasionally kill or capture a leading cartel figure, said Tree. "It's like killing Al Qaeda's number three man," he laughed grimly. "All it means is someone below him is going to move up, or there will be a struggle to see who replaces him."

For Tree, the situation in Mexico is taking on the ominous aspect of Colombia in the 1990s, where the breakdown of public security led to vigilantism and death squad activity, the predecessors of the Colombian paramilitaries. "When people became to realize the state was powerless to stop prohibition-related violence, it opened the door for other criminal activities, including kidnapping, and what makes this really dangerous is that now the ability of the state to protect individuals comes into question."

But Tree also noted that the situation in Mexico is forcing American media and policymakers to at least address calls for drug legalization. "This is doing what Colombia and Afghanistan couldn't do, which is to bring the violence of prohibition right to our door step and rub our faces in it," said Tree. "Calderon got in between some hornets' nests with a fly swatter, and now people in both countries have to make a choice. Mexicans supported this at first, but when they realized this isn't ending but is instead getting worse, they asked why he picked this fight."

"I'm worried about the militarization of the border and the assumption that that will fix this," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, DC. "On the other hand, it seems to be causing a growing crescendo of people wanting to talk about drug legalization. It's as if a critical mass has been arrived at. The recent statement by the three Latin American presidents was a voltaic shock to get the discussion going, and with the violence in Mexico, one has to acknowledge that a preponderance of the evidence shows the present model for drug control is not working. Even though there is a huge, formidable self-interested drug prohibition lobby, the logic of legalization is becoming so compelling it becomes all but impossible not to address it."

That political space to discuss legalization is changing things, Birns said. "Organizations like my own, which were timorous about taking on this issue now feel much more at ease with the clear recognition that everything else has failed. The possibility of legalization has to be seriously reviewed, inspected, and debated now."

Nadelmann suggested the current crisis could and should open debate about effective demand reduction strategies. "If we want to help Mexico by reducing demand, and want to give the notion more than lip service, then we have to remove the ideological inhibitions that limit our ability to effectively reduce demand," he said. "A small number of drug users consume a significant portion of all drugs. The traditional answer is to get more serious about drug treatment and rehab, but it could also mean providing addicts with legal sources of the drugs they are consuming. We know it works with heroin; the same approach deserves to be tried with cocaine and meth."

"The other thing we can do," Nadelmann argued, "is to move in the direction of legalizing marijuana. We know have 40% of Americans in favor of it, and it's approaching 50% out West. This is the first time a furor over drug-related violence has been so powerfully linked with marijuana prohibition. That mere fact that so many law enforcement people are saying it lends it credibility. This is putting the notion of marijuana legalization as a partial solution to prohibition-related violence on the edge of the mainstream political discussion in the US. With the Ammiano bill in California, Barney Frank's bill waiting to be introduced, Sen. Webb pushing for his commission, the conversation is really bubbling up now."

And so it goes. As the prohibition-related violence in Mexico continues and as the US appears to be heading down the reflexive path of fighting drug war failure with more drug war, the prohibitionist consensus grows ever more brittle. It's a shame that so many Mexicans have to die to get us to shift the direction of our dialogue on drugs.

Medical Marijuana: DEA Raids San Francisco Dispensary Despite Holder Vow

One week after Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government would not raid or prosecute medical marijuana providers unless they were breaking both state and federal law, DEA agents Wednesday evening raided Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic in San Francisco. The clinic is a cooperative operating under temporary city permits as it completes the city licensing process and thus, apparently legal under state law. Now, medical marijuana providers and activists don't know what federal policy really is.
Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic (from
The raid on Emmalyn's was done by the DEA only -- no state or local law enforcement was involved -- and the DEA, typically tight-lipped, has not explained how or whether Emmalyn's was in violation of state law.

"Because so little information has been released thus far, we have more questions than answers," added Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "But with an actual shooting war along our Mexican border, not to mention federal law enforcement there being so overwhelmed that traffickers coming through the border with up to 500 pounds of marijuana are let go, it's very hard to believe that this is the best use of DEA resources, especially in a city with an active program to license and regulate medical marijuana providers."

"It's déjà vu all over again at the Justice Department," said Stephen Gutwillig, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The ink's barely dry on the Obama administration's kinder, gentler approach to medical marijuana, and the DEA is up to its old tactics. San Francisco sets the standard for medical marijuana dispensary regulation. Surely, state and local authorities are capable of policing their own system, just as the feds surely have more pressing issues to address."

"It is disturbing that, despite the DEA's vague claims about violations of state and federal laws, they apparently made no effort to contact the local authorities who monitor and license medical marijuana providers," said MPP California policy director Aaron Smith. "For an agency that for eight years said it couldn't care less about state law to suddenly justify raids as an effort to uphold state law simply doesn't pass the smell test."

Holder has twice made remarks suggesting a shift in federal policy toward medical marijuana providers in states where it is legal, but only in response to direct questions. He has not issued an unsolicited policy statement or issued any policy directives.

"Attorney General Holder needs to be specific about when federal law enforcement will and will not harass medical marijuana patients and their providers," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The Justice Department needs to prioritize. Even if a medical marijuana patient or provider is in technical violation of some state law or regulation, that doesn't mean the federal government should be wasting scarce resources arresting people over it. Doesn't the Obama Administration have more important issues to deal with right now?"

Uh-Oh! Medical Marijuana Raid in San Francisco

Very unsettling:

Federal drug agents raided a medical marijuana facility in San Francisco Wednesday night.

The raid occurred at Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic at 1597 Howard Street. DEA spokeswoman Casey McEnry told CBS 5 the documents regarding the raid are sealed, so the DEA was not able to give many details.

"The documents relating to today's enforcement operation remain under court seal. Based on our investigation we believe there are not only violations of federal law, but state law as well." [CBS]

By claiming the case involves violations of state law, DEA is able to maintain the appearance of abiding by the attorney general's pledge to respect state medical marijuana laws. We're left to wonder if that will now become their blanket justification, to be invoked each time they elect to move in on an established medical marijuana provider. No one was arrested in today's raid, so we'll likely be waiting a while to find out what the hell happened.

The skeptical interpretation is that nothing's changed, that the feds will simply be more careful with the wording they use to describe future enforcement efforts that target medical providers. A worst-case scenario would the adoption of a policy in which the full force of federal law is brought down upon any medical marijuana provider who is accused of even a minor violation of state law. Defendants facing only federal charges would have no means to contest the grounds on which they were targeted to begin with. The practical value of Obama's purported policy shift would be negligible.

However, even if that's DEA's gameplan (which wouldn’t surprise me at all), I doubt it could withstand scrutiny. The salient question of why DEA is usurping the responsibilities of state law-enforcement won't escape notice and press coverage of these events grows increasingly competent as the issue continues to boil.

Obama's position on medical marijuana owes a great deal to pure political pressure resulting from the deep unpopularity of the raids themselves. The public simply hates this and won't be satisfied with a fictitious shell-game solution that merely reframes what DEA is actually doing.

Medical Marijuana: California Dispensary Operator Faces Decades in Federal Prison at Sentencing Monday

The Obama administration may have put an end to the DEA raids on medical marijuana providers in states where it is legal (see story here), but the legacy of the Bush administration's crusade against medical marijuana continues. Morro Bay, California, dispensary operator Charles Lynch is a case in point. After having been convicted of federal marijuana law violations, he goes to court for sentencing Monday, where he faces a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence and the possibility of up to 100 years behind bars.
Charlie Lynch (from
Lynch did everything by the book. Before opening his business in April 2006, he first contacted the DEA, which eventually told him it was "up to cities and counties" to decide about dispensaries. He also sought and received all necessary business permits from the city of Morro Bay.

But that didn't stop a local law enforcement official bent on shutting down his Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers from going after him. San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges unleashed an 11-month investigation into Lynch and the dispensary. He and his deputies surveilled the premises, took down license plate numbers and stopped the vehicles of dispensary workers and clients, and even resorted to using criminal undercover informants in a failed bid to get Lynch to violate state law.

Sheriff Pat Hedges couldn't find enough evidence against Lynch to even get a search warrant from state courts, so he turned to the DEA. On March 29, 2007, the feds hit full-force, raiding the dispensary and Lynch's home in full paramilitary attire. Lynch was not arrested at the time, and reopened the dispensary on April 7, 2007. The DEA then threatened the dispensary's landlord with seizure of his property if he didn't evict the Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers. On May 16, 2007, the dispensary shut down for good.

The DEA wasn't done with Lynch. Two months later, in yet another paramilitary-style raid, they arrested Lynch at his home and charged him with five counts of violating the federal marijuana laws.

After a trial in which -- as is always the case in federal court -- neither California's medical marijuana law nor the fact that Lynch was operating under it could be admitted as evidence, a jury convicted him of all counts in August 2008.

Lynch has received strong support from his local community, as well as sympathizers across the state and country. Demonstrations have been (and will be) held to demand justice in his case. Whether community support for Lynch or the Obama administration's commitment to not prosecute cases that do not involve violations of state medical marijuana laws will have any impact will only be found out Monday.

With the Obama administration's pronouncements so far on medical marijuana, it may be that the era of federal raids on medical marijuana providers is over. But as long as people like Charles Lynch are facing years in federal prison and others are serving sentences there, there is still some unfinished business if justice is to be served.

Medical Marijuana: Attorney General Holder Sends Another Signal -- No DEA Busts Unless You Violate State Law

Three weeks after Attorney General Eric Holder first signaled an end to DEA raids against medical marijuana providers, he has reiterated those remarks. Again in response to a question posed at his weekly Wednesday press conference, Holder said federal agents would only target medical marijuana distributors who violate both state and federal law.
Eric Holder
Thirteen states have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana even though federal law considers all marijuana possession, production, and distribution illegal. The conflict has been most intense in states with the broadest medical marijuana laws, California in particular. The DEA has raided dozens of dispensaries operating in the state in recent years, and US Attorneys have occasionally prosecuted their operators, exposing them to harsh federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws.

"The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law," Holder said Wednesday at the Justice Department. But he was quick to add that the feds will go after anyone who tries to "use medical marijuana as a shield" for dope dealing.

"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."

During his election campaign, President Obama promised repeatedly to end the raids on California dispensaries, but raids continued after his election and even shortly after he took office, prompting Holder's original statement three weeks ago. No raids have occurred since then.

Americans for Safe Access spokesman Kris Hermes told the Associated Press he welcomed Holder's remarks. "It signals a new direction and a more reasonable and sensible direction on medical marijuana policy," he said.

But, he added, there is still unfinished business left over from the Bush administration's crusade against the dispensaries. More than 20 California medical marijuana providers are currently being prosecuted in federal court, including San Luis Obispo County dispensary operator Charles Lynch (see story here), who could face decades in prison when sentenced on Monday.

"There remains a big question as to what the federal government's position is on those cases," Hermes said.

Another question is just how aggressive the DEA and the US Attorneys will be in determining that a given operation is violating state law. Perhaps in recognition of medical marijuana's broad support in California, the feds have tended to portray dispensary busts as targeting "drug dealers," not legitimate medical marijuana providers.

And yet another question will be the degree to which hostile local law enforcement entities attempt to sic the feds on dispensary operators, as was the case with Lynch.

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