As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama indicated that he was fine with medical marijuana. He said that, as president, he wouldn't devote a whole lot of law federal enforcement resources to going after growers, distributors, and users of medical pot in states where it's legal. (As of today, that's 16 states and the District of Columbia. Medical marijuana is illegal under federal law.) For good measure, in 2009 he directed his Justice Department not to waste time chasing down "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." So far so consistent, as Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance reminds us in a New York Times Op-Ed today.
So how to explain the zeal that federal authorities have, over the past year, brought to the task of messing with the legitimate medical marijuana industry? Here's a partial list of the tactics that, according to Nadelmann, the feds have rolled out.
• The Treasury Department has forced banks to close accounts of medical marijuana businesses operating legally under state law.
• The IRS has slapped dispensary owners with taxes required of no other businesses.
• The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently ruled that medical marijuana patients can not purchase firearms.
• Prosecutors have threatened to seize the property of landlords and jail for renting to marijuana dispensaries.
• The United States attorney in San Diego has indicated she'll start targeting media outlets that run dispensaries’ ads.
Just to be clear: this is all happening in states where medical marijuana is legal and regulated. In states considering liberalizing their medical pot laws, U.S. attorneys have been in friendly touch to remind local officials that they, the attorneys, have authority prosecute all marijuana offenses.
President Obama has been silent on the contradiction, so one can only guess at his thinking. Has he had a change of heart? (Would be good to know.) Is he just not paying attention? Is he making a cynical play for the notional moderate voter who fears medical pot is a gateway straight back to the crime-ridden 1970s? (Reality check: 70 percent of Americans support legalizing medical marijuana.) Whatever's going on, says Nadelman, Obama, who "briefly showed a willingness to challenge the drug-war mind-set that permeates the federal drug-control establishment," needs to step in and clear this up, one way or the other – ideally "to encourage and defend responsible state and local regulation of medical marijuana."