The Justice Department memo, sent to U.S. attorneys around the nation, addresses a central problem with the growing number of states that have legalized medical marijuana: The drug remains illegal under federal law, whether used for medical purposes or not. The new guidance memo reiterates the illegality of medical marijuana and appears to encourage prosecutors to go after some marijuana dispensaries, particularly the large operations.
President Obama suggested during the campaign in 2007-08 that his Justice Department would not prioritize going after medical marijuana. To find out more about the new medical marijuana memo, and for an update on the broader drug war, I spoke to Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which lobbies for alternatives to the drug war.
Can you give an overview of the legal status of medical marijuana around the country?
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana either through the ballot initiative process or a state legislative process. The federal law remains that it is all illegal. Strictly speaking, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 substance. The DEA just issued an announcement Friday confirming that it still regards marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance with no legitimate medical uses and no margin of safety in its use — which is sort of an absurdity on its face. Marijuana remains entirely illegal under federal law.
And “Schedule 1″ means what?
Well, back in 1970, when Congress unified all the drug laws in the Controlled Substances Act, they divided drugs into a variety of schedules. Schedule 1 refers to drugs that supposedly have no legitimate medical use and have no margin of safety in their use. So heroin, LSD, and marijuana are in that category. Schedule 2 are drugs that have some substantial risk but also have some legitimate medical uses. So for example cocaine, opiates and stimulant drugs are in that category.
So medical marijuana is illegal in the eyes of the federal government. But what has the actual enforcement policy of the Obama administration been up till this week?
During the presidential campaign in 2008, Obama made a number of commitments, one of which was that federal law enforcement would not prioritize prosecution of medical marijuana facilities operating legally under state law. Then in summer 2009, the Justice Department issued a memo called the Ogden memo, which basically affirmed much of Obama’s promise. It affirmed the idea that marijuana is illegal under federal law, but then said that federal prosecutors should not prioritize the prosecution of medical marijuana facilities operating legally under state law. Drug policy reform advovates felt quite optimistic about that 2009 memo, even though it was a qualified statement. What followed was a proliferation of dispensaries in places like Colorado, and California, and Montana. There were growing concerns that this was going too far. I think the Justice Department was hearing from local federal prosecutors and others who did not like these developments.
So what does the new memo sent out to U.S. attorneys say?
It’s called the Cole memo. It reiterates that all marijuana is illegal under federal law. They say that clearly federal resources should not be used to go after patients and their caregivers. They also say that any very large-scale operations — multimillion-dollar operations — will be prosecuted even if they are operating legally under state law. So that represents a modest change in policy. What they are not clear on is what will happen with the midlevel dispensaries. They’re not multimillion-dollar operations, they’re operating legally under state law, and they seem to be serving a population that has medical marijuana recommendations from their physicians. With those operations we’re in a kind of wait-and-see mode as to what prosecutors will do state by state.
The language of the Cole memo is quite aggressive in saying to everybody, “You better watch out, because any one of you could be prosecuted.” On the other hand there are some other messages being sent saying, “Watch what we do, not what we say.” So the real test cases will be whether or not the feds decide to go after medical marijuana dispensaries that are operating legally under state law and are being responsibly regulated by state authorities. If they do that, then we’ll know they really seriously backtracked on the president’s commitment.
So from the beginning of the administration to the present, have they actually gone after dispensaries?
There was a proliferation of dispensaries in states like Colorado and California. So there have in fact been more raids under the Obama administration than there were under the Bush administration. It’s hard to say whether that’s a reflection of the proliferation of dispensaries or whether that’s a real change in policy. What’s also not clear is whether the feds are only targeting those facilities that are not clearly operating legally under state law. So the feds have really created a growing sense of confusion in the medical marijuana community about where the line is between what will be permitted and what won’t.
Stepping back from medical marijuana, has there been much of a shift from the Bush to Obama administrations with “drug war” policy more broadly?
I was pleasantly surprised by the first 18 months of the administration. Obama made three explicit promises during the campaign. He said the feds would not go after medical marijuana facilities operating legally under state law, and he appeared to make good on that. He said the crack-powder laws needed to be rolled back, and they got a major reform of that law last year. Third, he said he would support federal funding for needle exchange, and they did support the efforts in Congress on that. Since that time, it looks more and more like the drug czar’s office has been captured by the drug warriors and the anti-drug fanatics who dominated policy-making in the Clinton and Bush administrations. The rhetoric coming out of the drug czar’s office is almost indistinguishable from the rhetoric of past administrations. The personnel they’ve been hiring, and the people they talk to, are overwhelmingly those who have been associated with the failed drug war policies of the past. And meanwhile the Justice Department seems to be getting more and more engaged in enforcement of marijuana laws in ways that really make no sense as a matter of [the] responsible [use] of resources.