01/10/2013 08:03 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2013

Gil Kerlikowske In San Francisco: Drug Czar Slams Medical Marijuana Despite Response To Petition

SAN FRANCISCO -- America's top drug enforcer's comments about medical marijuana in San Francisco earlier this week have some cannabis reform advocates raising their eyebrows, especially in light of his response to a handful of petitions about the same subject.

Speaking at the University of San Francisco Monday, Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske slammed the idea that pot can actually have a medicinal effect on patients who use it.

Calling marijuana medicine "sends a terrible message" to teenagers, he said, adding that "medicinal marijuana has never been through the FDA process."

Kerlikowske's comments have local activists shaking their heads. "If the drug czar is upset about people calling marijuana a medicine, he should talk to the American College of Physicians, the American Nurses Association and the American Academy of HIV Medicine," Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell told The Huffington Post. "These are just a handful of the prestigious medical organizations that are 'sending a terrible message' about the need to change our marijuana policies."

Curiously, the following day, Kerlikowske's office issued a memo that has the potential to change the country's entire dialogue about marijuana.

Acknowledging a trio of popular petitions submitted to the White House that call for protecting states' rights to regulate cannabis use, removing marijuana from the federal Controlled Substance Act and outright legalization, respectively, Kerlikowske admitted for the first time that America was "in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana."

The drug czar then went on to point to President Obama's most recent comments on the issue, during which he claimed targeting users in Colorado and Washington, both of which legalized marijuana for recreational use last November, was "not a top priority."

Angell believes Kerlikowske's statement signifies a changing tide. "From 'legalization is not in my vocabulary and it's not in the president's,' as Gil Kerlikowske often used to say, to 'it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana' is a pretty stark shift," he told HuffPost. "Of course, what really matters is to what extent the administration actually shifts enforcement priorities and budgets, but I sure do like hearing the U.S. drug czar acknowledge the fact that marijuana legalization is a mainstream discussion."

During his San Francisco appearance, Kerlikowske noted that he "wouldn't suppose I should tell the city what to do differently" when it comes to its approach to cannabis. California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana when voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, and San Francisco has since become a model for taxing and regulating medicinal pot.

And when Obama first took office, he pledged not to interfere with states that had legalized the medical use of marijuana. But that didn't stop his administration from launching an aggressive crackdown on California's flourishing cannabis industry, which generates more than $100 million in tax revenue for the Golden State each year. Since 2010, federal officials have forced dozens of Bay Area dispensaries and hundreds across California to shut down, leaving thousands of individuals unemployed.

In light of such closures, Angell took issue with Kerlikowske's statement. "Did the White House drug czar really just come to San Francisco and say, 'I wouldn’t suppose that I should tell the city what to do differently' about medical marijuana?" he said. "Maybe he forgot about the fact that the Justice Department has closed down several city-licensed medical marijuana providers here despite Barack Obama's repeated pledges to respect state medical marijuana laws."

If recent rulings are any indication, local lawmakers appear to be on medical marijuana's side. Earlier this week, a federal magistrate ruled that Oakland's Harborside Health Center, widely considered to be the world's largest pot shop, can continue to operate despite the Justice Department's efforts to shutter it.

New operations, however, are running into roadblocks despite Harborside's victory. CBS News noted last week that planned medical marijuana dispensaries in Oakland have delayed their openings despite the approval of city officials. The businesses blame the hold-up on increased federal pressure and landlords' subsequent reluctance to rent out space to cannabis-related entities.



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