Medical marijuana raid raises question: What's Obama policy?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — A recent Drug Enforcement Administration raid on a South Lake Tahoe, Calif., medical marijuana dispensary showcases one of the legal conflicts inherited by the Obama administration.

The Jan. 22 raid near the California-Nevada border occurred two days after Obama took office and before the new president's own Justice Department team was in place. The raid resembled many conducted during the Bush administration, but seemingly clashed with Obama's campaign opposition to such tactics.

"I think the basic concept of using medical marijuana for the same purposes and with the same controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors (is) entirely appropriate," Obama told Oregon's Mail Tribune newspaper in March. "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue."

Now, citing the Tahoe episode, medical marijuana activists and civil libertarians are urging Obama to freeze future raids. Some hope, as well, that Obama will reverse a Bush administration decision and let additional legal marijuana production to take place.

At the very least, activists and law enforcement officials alike are awaiting clarification about what's changed in the world of medical marijuana. This could take time.

"We're sympathetic to the fact the administration is just getting its feet on the ground," Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Dan Bernath said on Thursday, "but this does show he needs to appoint folks who will respects his principles and policies."

Attorney General Nominee Eric Holder has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, and his proposed deputy hasn't yet had a confirmation hearing. The phrase "medical marijuana" never came up during Holder's extensive hearing, nor in the follow-up written questions asked by senators.

Obama has yet to nominate a permanent DEA administrator, though acting administrator Michele Leonhart is considered one potential candidate and would be the first African-American woman to run the agency. Obama, likewise, has yet to nominate a new head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"The new drug czar could recommend policies that are more restrictive, or more lenient," noted Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in California.

With federally funded staff in Sacramento and Fresno, the Central Valley HIDTA coordinates antidrug efforts in a 10-county area. It participated in a high-profile investigation into the California Healthcare Collective, a Modesto-based medical marijuana dispensary whose founders were sentenced last year to long prison terms on charges of running a criminal enterprise.

"The ones that are targeted are the ones making millions and millions of dollars," Ruzzamenti said.

Federal agents during the past two years similarly have raided organizations in Bakersfield, Vallejo, San Mateo and other California cities. The most recent raid, on South Lake Tahoe's Patient-to-Patient Collective, seized five to 10 pounds of marijuana and a small amount of cash, according to police reports. No arrests were made.

By one count, the DEA has raided more than 60 medical marijuana facilities nationwide during the past two years, including a July raid in Seattle in which agents seized hundreds of patient files. The ongoing raids underscore a running conflict between state and federal laws.

Through a 1996 ballot measure, approved by California voters with a 55 percent to 45 percent margin, patients can obtain medical marijuana with doctors' permission. Ten other states, including Washington and Nevada, have followed California's lead.

Several hundred marijuana dispensaries are now publicly listed by the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, with names such as High Flight Deliveries in Stockton, Mr. Purple Skunk in Modesto and Earth Meds in Tulare County.

These dispensaries, and their counterparts in other states, have been on thin ice following a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that empowered federal authorities to prosecute marijuana purveyors even in states that permit medical marijuana use. Bush's drug czar, John Walters, championed such prosecutions.

Leonhart, a week before Bush left office, likewise took a hard line in issuing a 118-page decision rejecting a DEA administrative law judge's recommendation to allow a University of Massachusetts researcher to grow higher-quality medicinal marijuana. The American Civil Liberties Union and medical marijuana proponents hope this last-minute rejection, coming two years after the judge issued a positive recommendation, is put on hold until Obama's team is fully in place.

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