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Why Is the Government Cracking Down on California's Pot Dispensaries?

Questions surround Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to go after medical marijuana

Attorney General Eric Holder
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
August 22, 2012 2:25 PM ET

One Friday last fall, medical marijuana advocates in California felt the rug pulled out from under them. At an October 7th, 2011, press conference, four U.S. Attorneys announced plans to shut down many of the state's pot dispensaries. They have taken action against hundreds of establishments since then, and this week prosecutors issued a new round of lawsuits and warning letters.

While the government's motivations for the unexpected crackdown remain unclear, one author believes that it may have been intended to shift attention away from another unrelated controversy – the so-called "Fast and Furious" operation, in which federal investigators provided Mexican drug cartels with weapons that were later tied to the death of an Arizona border patrol agent. Author and activist Martin A. Lee makes the case at AlterNet: "The Justice Department green-lit a scorched earth campaign against medicinal cannabis in order to placate law enforcement and control the damage from the Fast and Furious scandal."

While the disastrous "Fast and Furious" program actually had its roots in the Bush era, Republicans were determined to make it President Obama's Watergate, and by last fall their vitriolic attacks on Attorney General Eric Holder were growing louder. Right-wing ideologues were calling for Holder to resign and even, absurdly, trying to paint him as an accessory to murder. After ignoring congressional Republicans' attacks as long as he could, Holder finally wrote to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) last October, defending the way he had handled the operation. The very same day, the U.S. attorneys announced their impending marijuana crackdown – which Lee argues was an effort to change the subject from "Fast and Furious" while reinforcing Holder's damaged image as someone who was tough on crime. "Holder had an ace up his sleeve," Lee writes, "and he played it at a crucial moment."

Not everyone is buying Lee's theory. There is no hard evidence that the California crackdown was related to the "Fast and Furious" scandal; indeed, Holder had issued some mild warnings about federal intervention in state pot programs long before the "Fast and Furious" story broke. But Holder's own shaky record on weed – including repeated false assertions that the federal government only targets operations that violate state laws – lends credence to his critics. As SF Weekly's Chris Roberts, a skeptic of Lee's argument, wrote: "If Lee is right, and this is a failed publicity effort, it would be within the character Holder has revealed to date."

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