Two years ago this month, then-U.S. Deputy attorney General David Ogden sent a memo to U.S. attorneys around the country that advised against cracking down on medicinal-marijuana operations that are in compliance with state law, even though federal law doesn't recognize marijuana as medicine. That sent a signal to both the states and medicinal-marijuana communities that they were free to continue to create systems for delivering weed to people in need without fear of federal intervention.
Although some marijuana advocates contend that U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raids under President Obama's reign actually increased over those during the Bush administration, communities in states with compassionate-use statutes were largely allowed to press on. For instance, after having previously established how much pot patients and caregivers could grow and possess, San Diego passed a law this year that laid out where and how collectives could operate (only to later repeal the law after pot advocates threatened a ballot referendum because it was too stringent).
Against that backdrop, somewhere between 150 and 200 marijuana collectives—of varying commitment to the spirit of California's Compassionate Use Act of 1996— have opened in San Diego, many of them trying desperately to operate within the framework of guidelines that then-California attorney General Jerry Brown set forth in 2008.
Ogden left the U.S. attorney General's office in February 2010, and by June 2011, his replacement, James Cole, had completely rewritten the federal government's policy toward medicinal marijuana, giving U.S. attorneys the go-ahead to target those who grow or sell marijuana without regard to its intended use or any existing state laws. This, presumably, came with the blessing of U.S. attorney General Eric Holder and Obama. It's as if the Obama administration baited the hook in 2009 and reeled in the catch this year.
Last week, Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney for the southern District of California, which covers San Diego and Imperial counties, unveiled the local result of that policy shift, announcing that hundreds of letters had gone out to pot collectives, ordering the operations to shut down by the third week in November or risk prosecution and forfeiture of property. It's questionable whether or not the feds have the resources to crack down on all collectives—it's possible that the focus might be on communities where public opinion leans against open distribution of medicinal marijuana—but staying in business would be a big risk for San Diego's urban collectives.
In any case, this move seals Duffy's position— not to mention Holder's and Obama's—as an enemy of the trend toward widespread acceptance of marijuana as effective treatment for a list of ailments. Her stance is based strictly on the fact that Congress has failed to do the right thing and remove cannabis from the Schedule 1 list, which is occupied by truly dangerous drugs such as heroin and LSD. She's clearly a defender of the federal government's archaic view of marijuana as being among the most dangerous drugs known to man with no medicinal value. She even spun the issue as a matter of child safety, using largely anecdotal evidence that collectives are selling pot to kids, arguing, for example, that medicinal marijuana is being sold in treats like ice cream—as if adults don't eat ice cream. Smoking pot is unhealthful; that's why it's put in sweets.
It's a shame that, suddenly, we're back to the time of open hostility between state law, which is based on an evolved understanding of reality, and federal law, which is unreasonable. As a result, potentially thousands of jobs may be lost and hundreds of storefronts shuttered in an already reeling economy. Meanwhile, the marijuana trade goes back underground and shadier characters are back in business.
Is the medicinal-marijuana industry a mixed bag that includes opportunists who sell to recreational pot enthusiasts? Of course it is. But that's why marijuana should be legal, taxed and regulated—because recreational users are going to get it one way or another. All Duffy and her ilk are doing is forcing folks who really use marijuana as treatment to get it on the black market. It's puritanical and stupid.