Medical Marijuana

  • August 30, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego. Kreit is author of the casebook, Controlled Substances: Crime, Regulation, and Policy and the ACS Issue Brief, “Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy.”

    Yesterday, after months of anticipation, the Department of Justice announced its response to marijuana legalization ballot measures passed by voters in Washington and Colorado last November.  The DOJ said it does not plan to sue Washington and Colorado to block the new laws.  The agency also released new prosecutorial guidance that indicates it may limit the enforcement of federal drug laws in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medical purposes.

    If you felt a sense of déjà vu reading that paragraph, there’s a good reason. 

    In 2009, The New York Times ran a front-page article about a different DOJ memo under the headline U.S. Won’t Prosecute in States That Allow Medical Marijuana.  The 2009 Times article reported that “[p]eople who use marijuana for medical purposes and those who distribute it to them should not face federal prosecution, provided they act according to state law, the Justice Department said Monday in a directive with far-reaching political and legal implications.”

    By early 2012, however, Rolling Stone ran a story titled Obama’s War on Pot in which writer Tim Dickinson forlornly told the story of how “over the past year, the Obama administration ha[d] quietly unleashed a multiagency crackdown on medical cannabis that goes far beyond anything undertaken by George W. Bush.”

    Will the DOJ’s new marijuana policy live up to the hype?  Or, will we see a replay of what happened following the 2009 memo?  Policy advocates seem to be split so far, with some calling it a historic turning point for U.S. drug policy and others taking a wait-and-see approach.

    Only time will provide a definitive answer to this question.  But comparing yesterday’s memo with 2009’s can help us understand what to watch for in the months to come.  A few points are worth particular attention.

  • August 13, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego. Kreit is author of the casebook, Controlled Substances: Crime, Regulation, and Policy and the ACS Issue Brief, “Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy.”

    Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new charging policy that has the potential to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in many drug cases. Holder’s Aug. 12 announcement marks the most significant policy change in what has been, until now, a largely rhetorical shift away from the failed war on drugs

    The new prosecutorial guidelines are aimed at one of the most disgraceful and frequently criticized features of drug war-era mandatory minimum sentencing: tying punishments to drug type and quantity in low-level cases.  The practice began with a hastily drafted law passed by Congress in 1984, at the height of drug war fervor.  The measure sought to increase and standardize punishments in federal drug cases through mandatory minimum penalties.  Legislators claimed that the law would create a two-tiered penalty structure, subjecting so-called “serious” drug traffickers to five-year minimum sentences and “major” traffickers to ten-year prison terms.  (These mandatory penalties can increase to 20-years or even life for defendants with prior felony drug convictions.)

    The problem is that while Congress referred to “serious” and “major” traffickers in debating the mandatory minimum provisions, the five- and ten-year penalties are “triggered not by role but by drug type and quantity instead.”   And, it turns out; drug type and quantity are a poor measure of a drug offender’s culpability. 

    Take drug couriers for example.  Drug couriers are considered expendable by drug organizations.  Most are addicts or otherwise down-on-their luck.  In San Diego, where I live, drug organization recruiters seek out homeless people for this job just a few blocks from the heart of downtown.  They might be paid $1,500 to transport hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs across the border. 

  • May 1, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Supposedly the Obama administration’s justice department has “bigger fish to fry” than people possessing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. The president’s statement to ABC News not long after his reelection regarded Colorado and Washington, where voters approved initiatives decriminalizing some amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

    But during his first term, President Obama also said his administration would not follow the path of his predecessor in harassing and shutting down medical marijuana dispensaries in the states that have enacted medical marijuana laws. More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws. But late last year, Robert Wilbur reported that during its first three-and-half years the administration had “conducted more raids on state-licensed dispensaries than the Bush administration did in eight years.”

    So while the Obama administration’s rhetoric regarding the so-called war on drugs has softened, its policies are still weighted heavily to tough-on-drug measures. A post earlier this week noted the administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy is continuing its strategies laid out in 2010, including allotting more money for tough-on-drug tactics.   

    Reporting for Salon, Natasha Lennard focuses on the Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Melinda Haag who is “threatening landlords housing medical marijuana dispensaries with 40 years in federal prison.” Citing the East Bay Express, Haag has apparently been obsessed with the shuttering dispensaries and harassing landlords that house them is a part of the strategy.

    California passed its medical marijuana initiative in 1996 with 56 percent of the vote. But because the Drug Enforcement Agency is stuck in 1936 – marijuana is a dangerous drug that will lead to “delinquent behavior” and “open the door” to other drugs -- the federal government continues to spend boatloads of money and time on disrupting states’ efforts to regulate their medical marijuana industries.

    As the East Bay Express notes, Calif. officials are pleading with the federal government to back off. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has asked the state to be permitted to regulate the industry “without the threat of new widespread prosecutions of medical providers.” In an interview with CNN last fall, the Express reported, Brown said, “It’s time for the Justice Department to recognize the sovereignty of the states. … We have a laboratory of democracy. We don’t always agree. … I believe the president and justice department ought to respect the will of these sovereign states.”

    Leaving states to their own devices, of course, cannot always be a good thing. For instance when states seek to limit liberty, like denying same-sex couples the right to wed, that’s not at all a bit helpful to democracy. But generally progress can occur when states seek to expand liberty or protections of liberty.

  • November 15, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Following on the victories for limited legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, advocates for legalization are gearing up for more state action. Andrew Sullivan in a post, “The Legalization Tipping Point,” notes that lawmakers in Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont are contemplating legalization legislation.

    Legislators from Rhode Island and Maine during a teleconference today conducted by the Marijuana Policy Project discussed their plans to introduce measures that would decriminalize marijuana and allow the states to tax and regulate it “in a manner similar to alcohol.” The MPP statement about the call said lawmakers in Massachusetts and Vermont were planning on introducing similar legislation.

    In the MPP press announcement, Robert Capecchi, the group’s legislative analyst lauded last week’s victories, noting both ballot initiatives passed with about 55 percent in favor. He also declared, “We are passing the tipping point when it comes to this issue. Unfortunately, lawmakers have traditionally been behind public opinion when it comes to marijuana policy reform. With these thoughtful legislators in at least four states planning on introducing sensible proposals to remove criminal penalties and regulate marijuana in their states, it’s clear that ending marijuana prohibition is gaining momentum.”

    A string of states – 17 – and the District of Columbia already have laws permitting varying uses of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Denver’s medical marijuana industry, even with the efforts by the federal government to impede it, has become robust. But we still do not know how the Department of Justice will respond to the measures approved in Colo. and Wash.

  • November 8, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As Colorado voters were debating whether to support a ballot measure to legalize small amounts of marijuana, some fretted about fueling drug tourism. But the more obvious difficulty Colorado and Washington State, where a similar legalization measure was approved, face centers on the federal government and its law that sees marijuana as more dangerous than heroine.

    As University of Denver law school Professor Sam Kamin told “60 Minutes” not long before the elections, the federal government has not been easy on the states that have legalized medical marijuana use. The government is employing several tactics to undermine the medical marijuana industry in Colorado – a fairly robust one – despite the challenges. Part of what the federal government does, according to Kamin, is to threaten banks with prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act if they help the medical marijuana industry to expand.

    It seems safe to assume for the moment that the federal government will not look any more favorably on the limited legalization laws in Colorado and Washington than it has on states were medical marijuana has been legalized.

    Alison Holcomb an attorney and leader of the campaign for Washington’s Initiative 502, sounded an optimistic note upon its passage, saying the state had “looked at 70 years of marijuana prohibition and said its time for a new approach,” the Associated Press reported. The Seattle Weekly in a Sept. profile of her work, lauded her for bringing together a “jaw-dropping list of sponsors – including travel guru Rick Steves, City Attorney Pete Holmes and former U.S. Attorney and Bush appointee John McKay – and keeps winning more and more endorsements as time goes on.”

    Washington’s initiative creates a system of state-regulated marijuana growers and allows adults to buy up to an ounce. Colorado’s Amendment 64 will allow those over 21 to buy an ounce of marijuana and permit people to grow a limited amount of marijuana.