Maybe it's because growers of medical marijuana are sitting ducks, not nearly as hard to find or as nasty to deal with as the Mexican drug cartels that run many large marijuana farming operations deep in forests on federal- and state-owned land, in parks and forest reserves.
Maybe it's because of the enduring contradictions between state and federal laws - about to become more severe if Californians next year pass a pending initiative to flat-out legalize marijuana.
For despite his campaign statements, President Obama has not ended confusion on the medipot front, dashing some hopes of patients, growers and operators of the medical marijuana dispensaries that have proliferated in many California cities. (Sure, some of those patients and dispensaries are phonies out for nothing but a high or a profit, but there are also plenty of legitimate medical users.)
More than six months after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder promised twice (sort of) to stop federal raids on state and locally sanctioned medical marijuana operations, raids continue. Not as many as under President George W. Bush, but still some. And federal prosecutors show few signs of ceasing efforts to convict and imprison cannabis defendants arrested before Obama became president.
Holder, of course, was never very specific in his promises. "What the president said during the campaign will be consistent with what we're doing in law enforcement," he said.
Here's one thing Obama said while running for office: "We will not be using Justice Department resources to circumvent state laws." Here's another: "Whether I want to expend a whole lot of political capital (on marijuana issues) is not likely." He also observed that he has "problems with mom and pop shops because that becomes difficult to regulate." But he also said, "If it's an issue of doctors prescribing or recommending marijuana, I think that should be appropriate."
That's enough to let Holder and the Drug Enforcement Administration that answers to him do pretty much what they like.
So, in late summer and early fall, the DEA made several raids on medipot growers in California and elsewhere. One netted five persons in Lake County, north of San Francisco, where 154 pot plants were confiscated.
The grower had a doctor's recommendation to use medical marijuana and was a designated supplier to several others with similar recommendations. That seemed to meet terms of California's 1996 Proposition 215, which allows use and supply of medipot when doctors' recommendations are involved.
The raid apparently resulted from official suspicion that the grower was involved in pot sales beyond the medical realm, making a raid in line with Obama's observation about regulating small operations.
If all this sounds confusing, it is. That's one reason the state Senate by an eight-vote margin in late summer passed a non-binding resolution urging the federal government to end medipot raids of all kinds - on growers, dispensers and users alike - and to "create a comprehensive federal medical marijuana policy that ensures safe and legal access to any patient that would benefit from it."
This may be a sensible sentiment, but Obama gave notice while a candidate that he would not devote energy to such an effort. Which is one reason a bill co-sponsored by the ultra-liberal Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank and the ultra-libertarian Orange County Republican Dana Rohrabacher to do just what the state resolution suggests is going nowhere.
As a result, there is still plenty of fear in the medipot community. Cities and counties are confused, too. Los Angeles is one example: City council members appear ready to authorize continued operations by many of the medipot dispensaries now open there, while the city attorney and district attorney both insist they are illegal because federal law trumps any state initiative. Both threaten raids.
There's also still the possibility that if you use medipot and live in federally subsidized housing, you can be evicted anytime - even if you're in compliance with state and local laws. That's why the pro-pot group Americans for Safe Access recommends on its Web site that patients in such housing not smoke pot in their apartments, but try to use only edible pot concoctions or vaporizers when at home.
Still, there's no doubt the Obama administration has been - as promised - less eager than its predecessor to flout state laws and insist on the primacy of federal drug regulations.
But if you're a cancer patient who legitimately needs relief, if you're the grower supplying that patient and others with aches and pains for which doctors recommend pot as the safest palliative, the uncertainty that still remains is unsettling, at best.
Thomas D. Elias
November 28, 2009