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The Obama Justice Department Is Forcing Legal Medical Marijuana Patients Into the Illicit Market

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In February, Oakland City Attorney John Russo asked the Obama Justice Department whether his city's plan to regulate large-scale medical marijuana cultivation would get the approval of the federal government. As expected, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag responded to Russo with a declarative "No!" Little did patient advocates realize, though, that Haag's letter would begin a trend resulting in similar U.S. Attorney letters sent to local and state officials in at least 9 different medical marijuana states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

This cynical tactic of sending letters that threaten public officials with criminal prosecution is not new -- the Bush Justice Department made similar threats against New Mexico officials in 2007 -- but it's now being used by Obama to obstruct the democratic process and impede the development of local and state laws regulating cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana.

In Montana, more than 8 federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the criminal division of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), executed 26 raids on the same day the senate was due to vote on a bill repealing the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law. The bill was ultimately passed by the legislature, but was later vetoed by Governor Brian Schweitzer. Then, in April, U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter sent a letter to the state legislative leadership urging them not to pass a law that would regulate medical marijuana production and distribution. This federal action contributed to the development of a bill that not only criminalizes this activity but also is expected to drastically and arbitrarily reduce the number of patients in Montana. That bill was not vetoed by Schweitzer and has since become law.

At the end of April, a day before the Washington State legislature put a bill on Governor Christine Gregoire's desk that would have regulated medical marijuana production and distribution, the DEA raided three distribution centers in Spokane. The raids came two weeks after U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby sent a letter to Gregoire threatening criminal prosecution if the law was passed. These actions compelled the governor to veto portions of the bill that would have licensed the same facilities raided a day earlier. The Associated Press reported at the time that Gregoire said "she could not approve a measure that might put state workers at risk of federal criminal charges." Just as in Montana, the bill passed in Washington represented a serious erosion of patients' rights.

A threatening U.S. Attorney letter sent to the governor of Rhode Island has resulted in the suspension of its recently passed, but not yet implemented, medical marijuana production and distribution law. Thousands of patients have been negatively affected by this suspension. Every time there's a raid, or a threatening letter is sent to an elected official, hundreds if not thousands of patients are left wondering where they're going to get their medication. The federal government gets a lot of mileage from saying it doesn't target patients, but the reality is that large numbers of us are directly impacted by these federal actions. ASA has argued that such tactics have forced untold patients into illicit markets, thereby jeopardizing their safety and making them more vulnerable to arrest and prosecution.

Fortunately, not all politicians have buckled under federal pressure. The Delaware legislature recently passed and Governor Markell signed a bill that made Delaware the 16th medical marijuana state. In spite of recent threats to its neighboring states, Delaware boldly included a production and distribution plan for patients across the state. In similar defiance of federal intimidation, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin is expected to soon sign into law a bill that will license four medical marijuana distribution sites, despite a Justice Department letter sent to public officials in that state. Patients commend Markell, Shumlin and all of the local and state officials who are standing up to federal interference. We need more of that kind of leadership.

The letters come nearly two years after the Obama Justice Department issued a memorandum in October 2009 to these same U.S. Attorneys, signaling a different policy from the prior administration. Even before becoming president, then-Senator Obama campaigned on the promise that he would not use "Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws." However, today his administration is not only circumventing these laws, it is undermining the right of cities and states to implement their medical marijuana laws accordingly.

Patients are sick and tired of broken promises and half-measures from the Obama administration. The president must answer for his inconsistent and harmful policies and work with us to address medical marijuana as a public health issue. Americans for Safe Access recently launched its "Sick and Tired" campaign to bring attention to the continued harassment, discrimination, and stigmatization of patients, and the need for a comprehensive federal policy.

Patient advocates are also seizing on a comment made by Governor Gregoire as she was vetoing parts of Washington's medical marijuana bill. According to the Seattle Times, Gregoire said she would "use her position as chair of the National Governor's Association to lead an effort to change marijuana federal classification." This presents a ripe opportunity to take the next step toward addressing medical marijuana as a public health issue. Join us as we work with governors and other key officials from medical marijuana states to take this fight to the next level!