Las Vegas Sun

April 19, 2014

Currently: 80° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

President’s pot comments prompt call for policy

Image

Associated Press

This Nov. 8, 2012, photo shows marijuana plants flourishing under the lights at a grow house in Denver. President Barack Obama says he won’t go after Washington state and Colorado for legalizing marijuana. In a Barbara Walters interview airing Friday on ABC, Obama is asked whether he supports making pot legal. He says, “I wouldn’t go that far.”

SAN FRANCISCO — President Barack Obama says he won't go after pot users in Colorado and Washington, two states that just legalized the drug for recreational use. But advocates argue the president said the same thing about medical marijuana — and yet U.S. attorneys continue to force the closure of dispensaries across the U.S.

Welcome to the confusing and often conflicting policy on pot in the U.S., where medical marijuana is legal in many states, but it is increasingly difficult to grow, distribute or sell it. And at the federal level, at least officially, it is still an illegal drug everywhere.

Obama's statement Friday provided little clarity in a world where marijuana is inching ever so carefully toward legitimacy.

That conflict is perhaps the greatest in California, where the state's four U.S. Attorneys criminally prosecuted large growers and launched a coordinated crackdown on the state's medical marijuana industry last year by threatening landlords with property forfeiture actions. Hundreds of pot shops went out of business.

Steve DeAngelo, executive director of an Oakland, Calif., dispensary that claims to be the nation's largest, called for a federal policy that treats recreational and medical uses of the drug equally.

"If we're going to recognize the rights of recreational users, then we should certainly protect the rights of medical cannabis patients who legally access the medicine their doctors have recommended," he said.

The government is planning to soon release policies for dealing with marijuana in Colorado and Washington, where federal law still prohibits pot, as elsewhere in the country.

"It would be nice to get something concrete to follow," said William Osterhoudt, a San Francisco criminal defense attorney representing government officials in Mendocino County who recently received a demand from federal investigators for detailed information about a local system for licensing growers of medical marijuana.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said he was frustrated by Obama's comments because the federal government continues to shutter dispensaries in states with medical marijuana laws, including California.

"A good step here would be to stop raiding those legal dispensaries who are doing what they are allowed to do by law," said the San Francisco Democrat. "There's a feeling that the federal government has gone rogue on hundreds of legal, transparent medical marijuana dispensaries, so there's this feeling of them being in limbo. And it puts the patients, the businesses and the advocates in a very untenable place."

Obama, in an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters, said Friday that federal authorities have "bigger fish to fry" when it comes to targeting recreational pot smokers in Colorado and Washington.

Some advocates said the statement showed the president's willingness to allow residents of states with marijuana laws to use the drug without fear of federal prosecution.

"It's a tremendous step forward," said Joe Elford, general counsel for Americans for Safe Access. "It suggests the feds are taking seriously enough the idea that there should be a carve-out for states with marijuana laws."

Obama's statements on recreational use mirror the federal policy toward states that allow marijuana use for medical purposes.

"We are not focusing on backyard grows with small amounts of marijuana for use by seriously ill people," said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in Sacramento. "We are targeting money-making commercial growers and distributors who use the trappings of state law as cover, but they are actually abusing state law."

Alison Holcomb, who led the legalization drive in Washington state, said she doesn't expect Obama's comment to prompt the federal government to treat recreational marijuana and medical marijuana differently.

"At this point, what the president is looking at is a response to marijuana in general. The federal government has never recognized the difference between medical and non-medical marijuana," she said. "I don't think this is the time he'd carve out separate policies. I think he's looking for a more comprehensive response."

Washington voters approved a medical marijuana law in 1998, and dispensaries have proliferated across the state in recent years.

Last year, Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed legislation that would have created a state system for licensing medical dispensaries over concern that it would require state workers to violate the federal Controlled Substances Act.

For the most part, dispensaries in western Washington have been left alone. But federal authorities did conduct raids earlier this year on dispensaries they said were acting outside the state law, such as selling marijuana to non-patients. Warning letters have been sent to dispensaries that operate too close to schools.

"What we've seen is enforcement of civil laws and warnings, with a handful of arrests of people who were operating outside state law," Holcomb said.

Eastern Washington has seen more raids because the U.S. attorney there is more active, Holcomb added.

Colorado's marijuana measure requires lawmakers to allow commercial pot sales, and a state task force that will begin writing those regulations meets Monday.

State officials have reached out to the Justice Department seeking help on regulating a new legal marijuana industry but haven't heard back.

DeAngelo said Friday that the Justice Department should freeze all pending enforcement actions against legal medical cannabis providers and review its policies to make sure they're consistent with the president's position. He estimated federal officials have shuttered 600 dispensaries in the state and 1,000 nationwide.

DeAngelo's Harborside Health Center is facing eviction after the U.S. attorney in San Francisco pressured his landlord to stop harboring what the government considers an illegal business.

"While it's nice to hear these sorts of positive words from the president, we are facing efforts by the Justice Department to shut us down, so it's hard for me to take them seriously," DeAngelo said.

The dispensary has a hearing Thursday in federal court on the matter.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: comment so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

No trusted comments have been posted.