The ongoing federal offensive against medical marijuana production and distribution in California is weighing ominously over the state's billion-dollar-a-year medical marijuana business, but while the industry could take some casualties, patients could suffer, and the battle field could get ugly, the feds can't stop it, a trio of well-placed activist observers said this week.
medical marijuana protest, 2006 (photo courtesy ASA)
Despite the Obama administration's famous 2009 Justice Department memo saying it would not interfere with operations complying with state laws in states where it is legal, the federal government has been raiding medical marijuana operations at a pace faster than the Bush administration. This year, the administration has become evidently more hostile, with a range of federal agencies doing what they can to make life difficult.
The Treasury Department has been scaring financial institutions away from dealing with medical marijuana businesses, the IRS is exercising punitive tax policy decisions designed to run them out of business, and even the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms has gotten into the act, warning gun dealers that medical marijuana patients are "addicts" who can't legally purchase weapons.
Tax liens and banking hassles are one thing, but being confronted by paramilitarized DEA raiders, threatened with having properties seized, or being faced with lengthy federal prison sentences is a whole other category of hurt. And that's what really has California's medical marijuana community up in arms. Between threatening news conferences by federal prosecutors, dozens of warning letters to landlords going out, and a steady drumbeat of DEA raids, medical marijuana patients and providers are scared -- and angry.
"I haven't seen people so outraged since the days of WAMM and the Ed Rosenthal raids," said long-time California NORML
head Dale Gieringer. "I'm hearing life-long Democrats say they can't vote for this -- unless Obama does something, he's going to lose a lot of support. I know people who gave a lot of money to his campaign last time who are sitting on their cash now."
That anger is taking to the streets, as well as the phone lines and the Internet. There will be a statewide protest at the federal courthouse in Sacramento as well as other federal courthouses on November 9, local demonstrations have already taken place in San Francisco and San Diego, with more scheduled around the state, and plans are in the work to protest President Obama when he visits San Francisco and Los Angeles next week.
"There's a lot going on," said Gieringer. "I can't keep track of it all."
Activists already held a White House call-in day on Tuesday, and Gieringer urged people to call their US representatives to urge them to support H.R. 1983
, the States' Medical Marijuana Protection Act.
"That would solve this problem," he said. "We really need to focus on Congress, but we also need to try to get something from this administration."
Americans for Safe Access
(ASA), the country's largest medical marijuana advocacy group, is deeply involved in waging the counteroffensive. It has sent out email action alerts to members and is mobilizing on the ground and at the courthouse as well, said spokesman Kris Hermes.
"ASA and other stakeholders are holding protests throughout California," he said, "and we intend to continue to apply pressure through the federal courts. At some point soon, we will file an appeal on the federal rescheduling petition case, and we'll be going head to head with Obama on that issue. Because the Obama administration is drawing so much attention to this, something has to break. We hope it leads to a more sensible public health policy."
But despite the angst aroused by the intensifying federal campaign, and despite acknowledging the real suffering likely to result -- from patients being denied medicine to local governments denied revenues to otherwise law-abiding citizens being subjected to federal raids and prison -- advocates said the federal campaign was ultimately doomed to failure.
"It's a serious threat in the sense that it will have an impact on the number of dispensaries and growers across California, and that will translate into hundreds if not thousands of patients being denied their medication and forced into the illicit market," ASA's Hermes. "I don't think that's the intention, but it will certainly be the effect."
But, citing the Bush administration's 2007 threat letter campaign, when warning missives went out to more than 300 landlords, resulting in the closing of some dispensaries, Hermes said the feds were fighting a losing battle.
"They don't have the resources or capacity to follow through on their threats, so there will be an impact, but it will be temporary," Hermes said. "When Bush did it, dozens of dispensaries shut down, but now there are twice the number of dispensaries in the state that there were then. It will be difficult for the feds to have a lasting impact, which is not to say they're not trying. And they're mounting this campaign on the backs of taxpayers."
"We've been through this before," sighed Cal NORML's Gieringer, citing not only the Bush threat letter campaign, but also the 2002-2003 crackdown under then Attorney General John Ashcroft, and the 1998 Clinton administration lawsuit against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Co-op.
"Every time, we've seen some damage done and some retrenchment, but every time the industry has come back stronger than ever in a year or two. I'm not sanguine about it," he said, "just used to being outraged. The government has a bankrupt policy that it can't really enforce very effectively. A lot of good people could get sent to prison, but at the end of the day, they're just flailing around."
Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University, owner of one of Oakland's dispensaries, and the man who put his personal fortune into last year's Proposition 19, has spent years looking over his shoulder for the feds. This is just another twitch of the dying dinosaur's tail, he said.
"We're always worried," Lee laughed mirthlessly. "But in the end, we'll win. There is too much for them to take out everybody. There will be sacrifices, people will be hurt, but now we have an army to fight back. In the long run, this just pushes us toward legalization."
Oakland also has a friendly city government and a history of pro-legalization voting, Lee pointed out in an oblique warning to the feds. "Here in Oakland, we passed Measure Z with 65% of the vote, and that made possession and sales
by adults and patients the lowest law enforcement priority," Lee pointed out. "Right now, we have six or so Measure Z clubs open. If they shut down the dispensaries, there will be a lot more of them."
Not only did Oakland pass Measure Z, which directed city officials to lobby for complete legalization, Lee pointed out, it also overwhelmingly passed Proposition 19.
"We're well on record for complete legalization, and the city needs the tax money more than ever," he said. "This is an ongoing battle between local governments here and the feds, and tax dollars is part of this fight. Right now, it's got us the worst of both worlds -- prohibition and taxation -- but hopefully one day we'll get taxation with legalization. There's certainly an incentive for local governments."
Landlords may tremble, dispensaries may close, people may go to prison. Medical marijuana and pot legalization supporters will fight in the trenches, though, and they are confident time and the tides are on their side. But only time will tell if they are right.