Supporters of medical marijuana are baffled by Obama's abrupt about-face on the issue. Some blame the federal crackdown not on the president, but on career drug warriors determined to go after medical pot. "I don't think the federal onslaught is being driven by the highest levels of the White House," says Nadelmann. "What we need is a clear statement from the White House that federal authorities will defer to responsible local regulation."
The White House, for its part, insists that its position on medical pot has been "clear and consistent." Asked for comment, a senior administration official points out that the Ogden memo was never meant to protect "such things as large-scale, privately owned industrial marijuana cultivation centers" like the one in Oakland. But the official makes no attempt to explain why the administration has permitted a host of federal agencies to revive the Bush-era policy of targeting state-approved dispensaries. "Somewhere in the administration, a decision was made that it would be better to close down legal, regulated systems of access for patients and send them back to the street, back to criminals," says DeAngelo. "That's what's really at stake."
The administration's retreat on medical pot is certainly consistent with its broader election-year strategy of seeking to outflank Republicans on everything from free trade to offshore drilling. Obama's advisers may be betting that a tough-on-pot stance will shore up the president's support among seniors in November, as well as voters in Southern swing states like Virginia and North Carolina that are less favorable to drug reform. But the president could pay a steep price for his anti-pot crackdown this fall, particularly if it winds up alienating young voters in swing states like Colorado, where two-thirds of residents support medical marijuana. In November, Colorado voters will likely consider a referendum to legalize all pot use for adults – and undercutting enthusiasm for the issue will only dampen turnout that could benefit the president. "Medical marijuana is twice as popular as Obama," notes Kampia. "It doesn't make any political sense."
The sharpest and most surprising rebuke to the administration has come from centrist governors who are fed up with the war on medicinal pot. In November, Gregoire and Chafee issued a bipartisan petition to the DEA, asking the agency to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug, the same as cocaine and meth – one with a recognized medicinal value, despite its high potential for abuse. "It's time to show compassion, and it's time to show common sense," says Gregoire. "We call on the federal government to end the confusion and the unsafe burden on patients."
A petition by two sitting governors is historic – but it's unlikely to shift federal policy. Last June, after a nine-year delay, the Obama administration denied a similar petition. An official at the Department of Health and Human Services left little hope for reclassification, reiterating the Bush-era position that there is "no accepted medical use for marijuana in the United States."
For law-enforcement officials who handle marijuana on the front lines, such attitudes highlight how out of touch the administration has become. "Whether you call it medical or recreational, the marijuana genie is out of the bottle, and there's no one who's going to put it back in," insists Sheriff Allman of Mendocino, whose department had been targeted by federal prosecutors for its attempts to regulate medical pot. "For federal officials who plug their ears and say, 'No, it's not true, it's not true,' I have some words for them: You need to get over it."
• The Great California Weed Rush
• Where Does Obama Stand on the Medical Marijuana Crackdown?
• Feds Crack Down on Medical Marijuana in California
• The State of Marijuana Reform in America
• Marijuana By The Numbers
• Barely Legal: The Politics of Pot in America
This story is from the March 1, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
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