In response to a question at a Wednesday news conference, US Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department will no longer raid medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they are legal under state law. The announcement marks the fulfillment of a President Obama campaign promise, and it marks the end of 13 years of stubborn federal resistance to state medical marijuana programs.
DEA raids of medical marijuana facilities in California continued after Obama's election in November and even after his inauguration last month. Holder was asked if those raids represented Justice Department policy under the new administration.
"Shortly after the inauguration there were raids on California medical marijuana dispensaries. Do you expect these to continue?" the reporter asked, noting that the president had promised to end the raids in the campaign.
"No," Holder responded. "What the president said during the campaign, you'll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we'll be doing in law enforcement. He was my boss during the campaign. He is formally and technically and by law my boss now. What he said during the campaign is now American policy." (Watch the video here.)
Nearly 75 million Americans live in the 13 states where medical marijuana is legal. But because of the federal government's refusal to recognize state medical marijuana laws, dozens of dispensaries in California have been raided by the DEA, typically in over-the-top paramilitary-style operations. More than a hundred people are facing prosecution, sentencing, or are already imprisoned under draconian federal marijuana laws because of their roles in operating dispensaries.
"There has been a lot of collateral damage in the federal campaign against medical marijuana patients," said Steph Sherer, medical marijuana patient and executive director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the nation's largest medical cannabis advocacy organization. "We need to stop the prosecutions, bring the prisoners home, and begin working to eliminate the conflict between state and federal medical marijuana laws."
At an ASA press conference hastily called for Thursday afternoon, Sherer elaborated. "I'm overjoyed to finally hold a press conference with some great news," she said. "Today is a victory and a huge step forward in what has been at times a cruel and tragic period. My outrage over the raids was shared by millions of Americans, and now our collective voice has been heard in Washington. We look forward to working with the Obama administration to harmonize the conflicts with state laws once and for all."
Charlie Lynch (from friendsofccl.com)
But for some patients and dispensary operators, the damage has already been done. Larry Epstein operates a legal medical cannabis dispensing collective in Marina Del Rey, California, that was raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on February 4, despite President Obama's statements on the campaign trail indicating a change in federal policy.
"We had been operating as a legitimate cooperative dispensary per California law for a number of years," said Epstein. "But the DEA came in here as if we were operating an illegal drug cartel. They stole all our property, all our product, and froze our bank accounts. Now, we can't pay our taxes; that's part of what they stole. It's devastating when they do those types of actions, never mind the hundreds of patients who rely on our facility to get their medicine."
Heather Poet operates a medical cannabis dispensing collective in Santa Barbara, California. The Justice Department has pressured her landlord to evict the collective using threats of prosecution and civil asset forfeiture. Her case prompted US Representative Lois Capps (D-CA) to ask Attorney General Holder to stop any and all prosecutions of property owners in a February 16 letter.
"Our landlord has twice been threatened by the US Attorney for the Central District of California, most recently just last month," Poet said. "If he did not initiate the termination of our lease for the 'illegal use' of his property -- we were operating legally under California law -- they would begin forfeiture proceedings against his property. That's when I contacted Rep. Capps. Within a week, she had contacted ASA and begun working on that letter. We are so grateful and proud of her for working so quickly to protect our rights and those of our patients. This has been a real travesty for so many sick people in California who have had to worry. Now, thousands of people will be able to breathe easier."
One person who isn't breathing easier just yet is Charles C. Lynch, a Morro Bay dispensary operator arrested and convicted on federal marijuana distribution charges. Lynch faces the dubious distinction of being perhaps the last person sent to prison under the federal war against medical marijuana; he faces at least a five-year mandatory minimum sentence when he is sentenced March 23.
"I became a medical marijuana patient in 2005 and decided we needed a dispensary here in the San Luis Obispo area so patients didn't have to drive 90 miles to Santa Barbara," Lynch explained. "Before I opened the dispensary, I called the DEA and asked them their policy. They told me it was up to the cities and towns, so I got a business license from the city of Morro Bay, and opened up on April 1, 2006. The mayor, the city attorney, and council members all came by to visit the facility. We even joined the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce. I did everything I thought was necessary to run a legitimate business."
But thanks to a recalcitrant local sheriff who, lacking any basis under state law to go after the dispensary, sicced the DEA on it, Lynch's dispensary was raided. "In March 2007, they raided me, took all my money and froze my bank account. They made it sound like I was selling drugs to children in the schoolyard. The city of Morro Bay reissued my business license -- the DEA had stolen it, too -- and I reopened for business. Two weeks later, the DEA threatened my landlord with forfeiture unless he evicted us for good, so on March 16, 2007, the dispensary closed for good."
That has been sufficient to slake the fed's thirst for vengeance in many dispensary raids: Trash the premises, steal the money and property, and drive the business out of existence. But in other cases, federal prosecutors wanted an extra pound of flesh and actually prosecuted dispensary operators. Charles Lynch falls into that unfortunate latter category.
"On July 17, 2007, I woke up to federal agents banging down my door with an arrest warrant for federal marijuana distribution charges," Lynch related. "I had a spotless record, but I had to post a $400,000 bond to get out of federal detention. The DEA and the sheriff did everything in their power to defame me, destroy me, and destroy my life. Now, I have been found guilty on five counts of distribution and await sentencing. I'm filing for bankruptcy, my friends are scared to talk to me because the feds are breathing down my neck. They've destroyed my life."
Clearly, Attorney General Holder's announcement Wednesday is a major breakthrough for the medical marijuana movement. Just as clearly, there are still messes to clean up and injustices to be righted. It is only when there is no one remaining in or threatened with federal prison for helping sick patients that the medical marijuana movement will have achieved real justice.