The Obama Administration's promising position on medical marijuana policy and the recent backpedaling that followed have generated plenty of discussion, but the most revealing aspect of this still-developing controversy has gone entirely unnoticed.
When DOJ released the infamous Holder Memo -- stating that federal resources would generally not be directed at activities that are legal under state law -- the news broke late on a Sunday night. The result was extensive Monday morning news coverage, continuing throughout the week. Remarkably, the White House had recognized that a large majority supports medical marijuana and timed the story to maximize exposure of their announcement that state laws would be respected.
In contrast, last week's reversal of that policy was made public late Thursday night, before the July 4th weekend. It was a classic Friday news dump, timed to minimize media coverage and mute public outcry.
Why does this matter? It actually matters a lot, because it shows that the politics of the issue aren't lost on Obama, even as he dares to stand in opposition to the 81% of the Americans who support medical marijuana. As difficult as it is to understand why the President would adopt the awful position of opposing patient access, we can at least write off the possibility that his re-election campaign thinks they'll win any votes this way. If the White House actually believed the American people wanted a war on medical marijuana, the President would never have feigned tolerance for state laws in the first place.
So the tough question here is what motivated Obama to back down from a stance that everyone seemed to agree with. One can only speculate at this point, but the most telling outcome may be that recent threats from DOJ have had the effect of stalling the implementation of sophisticated medical marijuana programs in multiple states. Having taken the Attorney General at his word that "clear and unambiguous compliance" with state law would likely provide local businesses with protection against federal enforcement, new medical marijuana states have worked hard to spell out exactly what they consider lawful.
Ironically, this may have been precisely the turn of events that train-wrecked the federal truce. State legislators thought they were making DOJ's job easier, but in doing so, they lent unprecedented legitimacy to the marijuana economy and threatened the long-term interests of the drug war's most powerful players. Oops.
What we're left with is an ugly and uncertain future in which patients and their providers must once again wonder each day whether they'll be caught at any moment in the drug war's often-indiscriminate crossfire. But as tragic as that is, it's really just a new phase in the all-too-familiar tradition of American drug war injustice that the medical marijuana community learned to endure long ago.
If our political leadership understands the politics of medical marijuana well enough to dump their dirty deeds into the weekend news cycle, then they should also know by now that this fight is very far from over. They know this medicine works because they've studied it themselves. They know our movement has power because we've proven it at the ballot box in one state after another. They know we'll never stop fighting for justice, because we've never been intimidated before by their weaponry, be it machine guns or mandatory minimums. And they know that our public support grows greater every day, regardless of whatever lying, backstabbing distraction tactics they deploy, because every new poll shows that the American people support medical marijuana more firmly than ever before.
Leaving aside for a moment Obama's temporary and disingenuous attempt to placate us, there has really only ever been one message from the federal government to the medical marijuana community: you cannot do this. For 15 years, the threat of violent raids, dishonest prosecutorial tactics, and harsh prison sentences has loomed over all those who dared to disobey unjust federal laws. With the support of the American people, the movement for medical marijuana in America has grown dramatically despite those threats, and the challenges we face today are a product of our own success.
Obama and his drug war army may have the force of federal law on their side, but they know that to fully execute it means they must risk shocking the conscience of the American people. That is something they literally and figuratively cannot afford to do. In the end, the success of the medical marijuana movement depends only on the willingness of patients, providers, advocates, and even state officials to continue pushing cautiously, but constantly, forward.