Less than two weeks after the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a memorandum on how it intends to enforce marijuana laws in states that have legalized its use, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold unprecedented hearings this Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. ET focusing in part on the details of that enforcement plan. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to hear testimony from Deputy Attorney General James Cole, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper's Chief Legal Counsel Jack Finlaw, King County Sheriff John Urquhart, and the Ann Coulter of the anti-drug reform movement, Drug Policy Institute Director Kevin Sabet.
While part of the hearings will focus on the new marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) and other advocates are urging the Committee to question the DOJ specifically on how the new policy will change enforcement practices from the current aggressive tactics which have left hundreds of thousands of patients without access to a medication legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
In an article in The Atlantic published last week, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said:
"I've long urged the federal government to stay away from states where they have legalized the use of marijuana, or legalized medical marijuana, and the reason I am holding my hearings is to get a very clear understanding of what they want to do. We only have so many resources for law enforcement and to waste time on...marijuana in states where it is legal makes absolutely no sense."
I hope this outrage carries over into the questioning of Deputy Attorney General James Cole. According to ASA's calculations, the Justice Department's war on medical marijuana recently eclipsed $500 million dollars, with over $300 million being spent during the Obama Administration. The DEA has spent approximately 4 percent of its budget in 2011 and 2012 on the medical marijuana crackdown.
This isn't the first time the DOJ has been questioned by Congress on their actions surrounding medical marijuana enforcement. On June 7, 2012 when asked by the House Judiciary Committee to explain this activity, Attorney General Eric Holder testified:
"We limit our enforcement efforts... to those acting out of conformity with state law."
Just four days after Holder's testimony, armed federal agents raided El Camino Wellness, a respected -- fully permitted and compliant -- medical cannabis dispensary in Sacramento, California. El Camino Wellness was a non-profit cooperative that served 27,000 patients in the Sacramento area. It was nowhere near a school, and met all state and local guidelines for operation. El Camino Wellness had the support of City Council members, one of whom even wrote to U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, questioning the need to target them and other city-sanctioned facilities.
The medical marijuana community has a right to be skeptical about the DOJ and its policies on medical marijuana. The Obama Administration has taken us on a rollercoaster of hope followed by extreme enforcement. In less than four and a half years into President Obama's command, the federal crackdown on state medical marijuana programs has generated more raids than under eight years of Bush. Not to mention, his U.S. Attorneys have intervened to stop states from passing laws that would seemingly stop these raids.
Following the issuance of this memo U.S. Attorney for Western Washington Jenny Durkan said in a statement that the new policy changed nothing about her so-far aggressive response to medical marijuana in her state:
"[C]ontinued operation and proliferation of unregulated, for-profit entities outside of the state's regulatory and licensing scheme is not tenable and violates both state and federal law."
Similarly, the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California responded:
"At this time the U.S. Attorney is not releasing any public statements. The office is evaluating the new guidelines and for the most part it appears that the cases that have been brought in this district are already in compliance with the guidelines. Therefore, we do not expect a significant change."
Does this mean we can expect more of the same from the Department of Justice?
ASA will be hosting a Google Hangout at 5 p.m. ET following the hearings on Tuesday to discuss the reaction to the testimony. The media and general public are invited and encouraged to join the Google Hangout by logging into the ASA YouTube page. The Google Hangout following the hearings will feature federal defendants, family members of those incarcerated by the DOJ's war on medical marijuana, legislators like Kriss Worthington of the Berkeley City Council, which has vowed legal action against the DOJ for its attempts to shut down one of the oldest and fully licensed dispensaries in California, Huffington Post D.C. Bureau Chief Ryan Grim, as well as Tracy Duval, the wife of recently incarcerated Michigan patient Jerry Duval, and several others with compelling stories about federal enforcement.
The Google Hangout will also feature discussion of ASA's Peace for Patients campaign, which is aimed at bringing attention to the impact of the DOJ's aggressive practices and calling on Congress to pass binding legislation that will restrict the funding for those same enforcement practices.
Hopefully, Leahy can get some real answers out of the DOJ, one million legal medical marijuana patients are depending on it.
Follow Steph Sherer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/safeaccess