by Jeremy Leaming
Supposedly the Obama administration’s justice department has “bigger fish to fry” than people possessing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. The president’s statement to ABC News not long after his reelection regarded Colorado and Washington, where voters approved initiatives decriminalizing some amounts of marijuana for recreational use.
But during his first term, President Obama also said his administration would not follow the path of his predecessor in harassing and shutting down medical marijuana dispensaries in the states that have enacted medical marijuana laws. More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws. But late last year, Robert Wilbur reported that during its first three-and-half years the administration had “conducted more raids on state-licensed dispensaries than the Bush administration did in eight years.”
So while the Obama administration’s rhetoric regarding the so-called war on drugs has softened, its policies are still weighted heavily to tough-on-drug measures. A post earlier this week noted the administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy is continuing its strategies laid out in 2010, including allotting more money for tough-on-drug tactics.
Reporting for Salon, Natasha Lennard focuses on the Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Melinda Haag who is “threatening landlords housing medical marijuana dispensaries with 40 years in federal prison.” Citing the East Bay Express, Haag has apparently been obsessed with the shuttering dispensaries and harassing landlords that house them is a part of the strategy.
California passed its medical marijuana initiative in 1996 with 56 percent of the vote. But because the Drug Enforcement Agency is stuck in 1936 – marijuana is a dangerous drug that will lead to “delinquent behavior” and “open the door” to other drugs — the federal government continues to spend boatloads of money and time on disrupting states’ efforts to regulate their medical marijuana industries.
As the East Bay Express notes, Calif. officials are pleading with the federal government to back off. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has asked the state to be permitted to regulate the industry “without the threat of new widespread prosecutions of medical providers.” In an interview with CNN last fall, the Express reported, Brown said, “It’s time for the Justice Department to recognize the sovereignty of the states. … We have a laboratory of democracy. We don’t always agree. … I believe the president and justice department ought to respect the will of these sovereign states.”
Leaving states to their own devices, of course, cannot always be a good thing. For instance when states seek to limit liberty, like denying same-sex couples the right to wed, that’s not at all a bit helpful to democracy. But generally progress can occur when states seek to expand liberty or protections of liberty.
University of Denver law school professor Sam Kamin in a guest post noted several actions the government could take to ease the tension between the federal government and the states on this matter. For instance, he wrote, “the government could move to reclassify marijuana as a less serious substance – permitting its medical use under some conditions – or could remove it entirely from the list of control substances.”
However, it appears, at the moment, the Obama administration is content to stick with the costly and failed war on drugs. U.S. Attorney Haag may be bent on cramming our prisons with more non-violent offenders, but that’s a noxious strategy for it exacerbates mass incarceration. As a new Brennan Center report shows far too many people are imprisoned for non-violent offenses. And as the Department of Justice surely knows, minorities are disproportionately targeted for these low-level drug offenses.