Medical marijuana suppliers complain that the Justice Department is tightening the federal government's approach to enforcement. That's a disingenuous response to the department's latest directive that medical marijuana is not a business – though suppliers sure want it to be. The June 29 memo largely reaffirms one from October 2009 – known as the "Ogden" memo. Both memos advise US attorneys that individual marijuana users with serious illnesses – and their caregivers – are not an enforcement priority, but those in the business of cultivating, selling, or distributing marijuana are.
Late last year, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. affirmed the Obama administration's long-standing policy of taking a hands-off approach to states that had legalized medical marijuana, saying federal resources wouldn't be expended on enforcement actions as long as purveyors obeyed state law. On Tuesday, Los Angeles got a taste of the current interpretation of that policy — which is that our dispensaries are out of bounds. Federal officials started their first major operation in L.A. by raiding dispensaries. (See also: Marijuana: A failure to regulate, but not by dispensaries)
Looking at the recent spread of liberalized marijuana laws across the United States, it's hard not to think we're entering some kind of Weed Spring. The latest state to act is Maryland, where on Monday the state senate approved a bill legalizing medical marijuana by 42 to 4, sending it to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is expected to sign it into law. Several state legislatures are considering relaxing their restrictions on marijuana. A majority of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, and 65 percent of young people support legalizing it.
Colorado's medical-marijuana industry took a battering from all sides, as new laws restricting the businesses took effect and the Obama administration made its most explicit threat yet that dispensary raids are still possible. Perhaps the most pressing challenge to Colorado's medical-marijuana businesses came in a U.S. Department of Justice memo. In this week's memo, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote that people "who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana and those who knowingly facilitate such activities" are in violation of federal law, regardless of their state laws.
Marijuana has been approved by California, many other states and the nation's capital to treat a range of illnesses, but in a decision the federal government ruled that it has no accepted medical use and should remain classified as a highly dangerous drug like heroin. The decision by the DEA comes almost nine years after medical marijuana supporters asked the government to reclassify cannabis to take into account a growing body of worldwide research that shows its effectiveness in treating certain diseases, such as glaucoma and multiple sclerosis.
In October 2009, medical marijuana advocates celebrated a U.S. Department of Justice memo declaring that federal authorities wouldn't target the legal use of medicinal pot in states where it is permitted. The memo from Deputy U.S. Attorney General David Ogden was credited with accelerating a California medical marijuana boom, including a proliferation of dispensaries that now handle more than $1 billion in pot transactions. But last month brought a new memo from another deputy attorney general, James Cole. And this time, it is stirring industry fears of federal raids on pot dispensaries and sweeping crackdowns on large-scale medical pot cultivation.
Why is the U.S. government cracking down on medical marijuana, a $1.7 billion business — and one of the few that seems to be thriving in a moribund economy? In early October, the Justice Department announced that it would be targeting medical-marijuana dispensaries in California. Calling large dispensaries "profiteers" that "hijacked" the state's medical-marijuana law, "motivated not by compassion but by money," California's four U.S. Attorneys announced the arrests of two major dispensary owners and a lawyer they accused of making millions from growing the drug.
Fifteen years after the first state legalized medical marijuana — and set up a confrontation with federal law that keeps cannabis illegal — federal law enforcement's position on medical-marijuana businesses remains something of a mystery. Two memos written in the past two years that attempt to explain the federal position have not answered medical-marijuana advocates' questions. Indeed, federal raids in the past month in Colorado and California have only generated more.
The reality is that no one knows how many people are legally using marijuana in California because the state — with hundreds of pot stores and clinics that issue medical marijuana recommendations — does not require residents to register as patients. Of the 16 states that allow the medicinal use of cannabis, it is one of only three without such a requirement. A state lawmaker has recently introduced legislation that would give authorities a much clearer count of the drug's bona fide consumer base.
Federal authorities opened the latest front in their war on California's massive medical marijuana industry this week, filing property forfeiture lawsuits in a bid to shut down three dispensaries and sending warning letters to 34 people. The moves by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles are the latest in an ongoing crackdown on what federal prosecutors say is a flourishing network of illegal cannabis suppliers operating across California under the cover of the state's medical marijuana law.
In what could be a turning point in the city's seemingly unending battle to regulate the distribution of medical marijuana, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ban all pot dispensaries, while also opening the door to possibly let some remain. Under the ban, all of the 762 dispensaries registered in the city will be sent letters ordering them to shut down immediately. Those that don't comply may face legal action from the city.
The city of Oakland has sued to block U.S. authorities from closing down a medical marijuana dispensary that bills itself as the world's largest, marking the latest clash with federal authorities over California's cannabis industry. The lawsuit, which was filed by Oakland's city attorney in U.S. District Court, seeks an injunction to halt efforts by federal prosecutors to shut down Harborside Health Center through civil forfeiture actions they filed in July against two properties where the clinic operates.
A U.S. magistrate judge on Thursday sided with federal prosecutors in dismissing a lawsuit by the city of Oakland that challenged as illegal federal attempts to shutter the nation's largest medical marijuana dispensary. In filing the suit last October, Oakland became the first city to take on federal enforcement actions that have led to the closure of hundreds of dispensaries in recent years.
Lawsuits were filed today in federal courts in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego in a move to block efforts by U.S. attorneys to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries in California. "A massive organized effort is now going to be launched to bring the issue to federal courts across the state to get some judges to look at this," said San Francisco lawyer Matt Kumin, one of the attorney's representing plaintiffs in the lawsuits.
The Internal Revenue Service, America's tax collecting agency, sent a letter demanding an initial $2.5 million in back taxes and characterised the Harborside Health Center dispensary as a drug trafficking organisation. Using a provision of the tax code originally written to help seize the assets of gangsters and organised criminals, the IRS said Harborside was disqualified from claiming its ordinary business expenses – payroll, insurance, rent and so on – as deductions and needed to pay taxes on them instead. This is not just an attempt to tax; it's an attempt to tax dispensaries out of existence.