Another slice of President Obama’s liberal base has become frustrated and disappointed with him: a growing number of leaders in California’s $1.5 billion medical cannabis community.
Supporters of the state’s network of medical pot businesses, like some members in the gay and environmentalist voting blocs, think Obama has not lived up to his campaign promises.
In 2007, then-candidate Obama said in New Hampshire that he “would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users. It’s not a good use of our resources.” A 2009 Justice Department memo seemed to confirm as much.
It was welcome news to many people in California, where voters passed a pioneering law in 1996 legalizing marijuana for medical use. After years of federal raids, many people in the state’s medical cannabis community felt they had a friend in the White House.
But their perspective began to change in June when a Justice Department memorandum expressed concern about a recent “increase in the scope” of medical marijuana operations and warned industry leaders that they were in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act, “regardless of state law.”
Federal prosecutors say they believe the state’s law has become a cover for an increasing number of illegal, large-scale growers and dispensaries to develop for-profit operations that are beyond the original intent of the state law, which was to provide relief to the sick and frail.
On Oct. 7, the four regional U.S. attorneys in California announced that they would begin cracking down on commercial dispensaries. The prosecutors said they are not singling out patients but are concerned about bad actors in a loosely regulated industry with an estimated 500 to 2,500 or more collectives statewide.
Since then, federal officials have threatened property owners across the state with forfeiture and criminal charges for letting pot dispensaries rent office space from them.
Restraining order sought
The crackdown is confusing to many marijuana cooperative leaders in the state. While many of them believe the regional prosecutors are taking the lead, some wonder why Obama hasn’t tried to stop them.
Last week, attorneys for medical cannabis operators asked a federal judge for a restraining order to stop the crackdown, saying it will have an effect on thousands of ill people who depend on the drug for palliative relief.
“I’m perplexed as to why they’re doing this. It seems shortsighted,” said California State Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, a Democrat. She estimates that the medical cannabis industry contributes $100 million a year in sales taxes to the state.
“Politically, I don’t see the upside of this,” Yee said. “There’s a lot of other tax scofflaws we could be going after.”
Nationwide, support to legalize marijuana reached a record 50 percent in a Gallup Poll last month – including 62 percent support in the 18- to 29-year-old demographic, which Obama needs to help secure his re-election.
But political analysts say it is unlikely that medical marijuana advocates can do much to dent Obama’s strong support in California.
“Who are they going to vote for, Romney?” asked Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA who is a former Justice Department analyst and prolific author on marijuana issues.
But among the 16 other states where medical cannabis is legal are swing states such as Michigan and Colorado.
“The medical cannabis community everywhere is outraged, and I plan to be in Colorado to campaign against” Obama, said Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, the state’s largest dispensary, with 95,000 patients and 120 employees. DeAngelo was an Obama supporter and contributor in 2008.
Harborside has also felt heat from federal officials in recent months. In September, the Internal Revenue Service said the center owed $2.5 million in taxes for 2007 and 2008. The IRS said Harborside could no longer deduct business expenses such as rent or payroll because it is involved in what the feds view as illegal drug trafficking.
Jack Gillund, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s Northern California district office, declined to comment on the crackdown.
A White House spokesman said that its position on medical marijuana “has been clear and consistent.”
“While the prosecution of drug traffickers is a core priority, targeting individuals with cancer and serious illnesses is not the best allocation of federal law enforcement resources,” said the spokesman, Adam Abrams.
Supporters of medical marijuana say the feds are trying to send a message by hitting some of California’s most prominent operators, including Lynnette Shaw.
Shaw runs the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana. The 14-year-old, $1 million-a-year business is the state’s longest-standing licensed dispensary. In late September, federal officials said they will prosecute the dispensary’s landlord unless the dispensary is evicted.
While federal officials said the dispensary is too close to a park, the Fairfax Town Council doesn’t seem to mind its presence. On Nov. 4, the council passed a resolution lauding the “humane services” the dispensary provides to communities and its “financial contributions to local government.”
The council, in the heart of one of the most politically liberal areas of the nation, opposes the Obama administration’s crackdown and asked the U.S. attorneys to reconsider.
Shaw, a longtime Libertarian Party member and the party’s 2006 candidate for lieutenant governor, broke ranks in 2008 by voting for Obama and organizing a small fundraiser for him.
But “if he doesn’t change, I’m going to tell everyone I know to vote for Ron Paul,” the Republican representative from Texas who is running for president, Shaw said.
The Marin Alliance isn’t the only high-profile dispensary under fire. At 6 a.m. on Oct. 13, agents with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration raided Northstone Organics, a Redwood Valley (Mendocino County) dispensary, taking 99 plants and computers from the collective.
Mendocino supplier raided
Run by Executive Director Matthew Cohen, it was one of the first dispensaries in Mendocino County to sign up for a pioneering license program. Last summer, Cohen was featured on PBS’ “Frontline” series.
Now his business lies in ruins after federal agents destroyed his only crop of the year, which he grows and delivers to Northstone’s 1,700 patients.
“Whatever the intent of federal authorities,” Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen wrote in an open letter Oct. 31, “enforcement actions against legally compliant medical marijuana providers like Matt Cohen will have the effect of driving medical marijuana back underground, keeping it illegal and dangerous, and insuring maximum profit for the black marketeers.”
While Cohen tries to figure out why federal officials singled him out when he was trying to comply with local law, he said he will have a hard time supporting Obama again. “This is his problem,” Cohen said. “It’s happening on his clock.”
– Article originally from San Francisco Chronical.