What will happen to California's medical marijuana industry?
Tonight, a show called "Weed Wars" is premiering on the Discovery Channel, and it’s entirely based on the Bay Area medical marijuana trade. The premiere has interesting timing: Yesterday, a U.S. District judge in Oakland rejected a request from dispensaries to keep federal prosecutors from filing charges against them. It’s the latest in a series of events that have been challenging California marijuana advocates, kicked off by Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for California’s Northern District, when she announced in early October that the Justice Department is targeting certain cannabis dispensaries for closure.
MELINDA HAAG: Last week we sent letters to landowners and lien holders of these stores, putting them on notice that marijuana is being sold and used on their property in close proximity to children and that the operations must cease.
KALW’s Ben Trefny asked reporter Steven Short to catch us up on the state of medical marijuana in California.
BEN TREFNY: Steven, we just heard Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for Northern California, saying they’re only targeting cannabis dispensaries near schools. So why do advocates see this as an attack on medical marijuana as a whole?
STEVEN SHORT: All of these dispensaries have been licensed by cities or counties, so they see this as unfairly changing the rules. They also see it as eroding the respectability medical marijuana has earned in the past few years.
For the Justice Department to label what dispensaries consider “medicine” as something that shouldn’t be near schools implies that it’s dangerous. But Haag did say at her press conference back in October that, medical value or not, the whole idea has gotten out of hand:
MELINDA HAAG: The California Compassionate Use Act was intended to help seriously ill people. But the law has been hijacked by profiteers who are motivated, not by compassion, but by money.
TREFNY: Steven, what do dispensary owners say about these accusations?
SHORT: Dispensary owners, and their supporters who I spoke with, stressed that they are non-profit co-ops, not money-grubbing drug dealers. They get their licenses and pay their taxes, just like any other business.
TREFNY: Well, taking that thought at face value, any idea what those taxes and fees amount to?
SHORT: Well, as with everything else associated with this issue, exact numbers are hard to find. But the California Board of Equalization has estimated that medical marijuana generates between $53 million and $104 million in annual sales taxes. That’s a big range, but either number is impressive.
TREFNY: Wasn’t the Justice Department supposed to make marijuana enforcement a lower priority under President Obama?
SHORT: When he was running for president, a lot of people did interpret his remarks that way. Here’s candidate Obama in April of ‘08 in an interview with the Mail-Tribune newspaper in Medford, Oregon:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I’m not going to be doing is using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue simply because I want folks to be investigating violent crimes and potential terrorism. We’ve got a lot of things for our law enforcement officers to deal with.
TREFNY: Steven, what we just heard Barack Obama say seems in conflict with what the Justice Department has announced.
SHORT: Yes, in fact, in the early days of his administration, President Obama specifically said that licensed dispensaries in states with medical marijuana laws would be left alone.
I spoke with Robert MacCoun about this. He’s a UC Berkeley professor, at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Here’s what he said about this seeming contradictions.
ROBERT MacCOUN: While they don’t think medical marijuana patients should be a high priority for prosecution, trafficking in marijuana, or profiteering from medical marijuana, is still on the table as a legitimate use of their resources. And they make quite clear that they’re going to reserve the right to be tough.
TREFNY: How are medical marijuana advocates responding to these letters from the Justice Department that are telling them to shut their doors?
SHORT: The letters actually went to the property owners. They alerted them of possible illegal activity on their property and gave them 45 days to evict the tenants or face seizure of their property, along with possible felony charges themselves. That 45-day period ended last week. Some co-ops have closed, others have moved.
TREFNY: And I imagine that others are taking other action. What else is happening from their end?
SHORT: You won’t be surprised to hear that two lawsuits have been filed. The one prepared by Americans for Safe Access charges that the federal government’s actions are unconstitutional, since the state should be able to set its own health policy. The other one, filed by a group of patients, landlords, and co-ops, charged that the Justice Department is breaking their previous pledge to leave them alone. But earlier this week a U.S. District Judge in Oakland rejected that request.
TREFNY: Why do you think the Justice Department has decided to take these actions at this particular time?
SHORT: I asked Professor MacCoun that same thing and here’s what he had to say:
MacCOUN: You know, I think every four years we enter a presidential “silly season,” where candidates make pronouncements about law and order that are ill-considered. And they’re gambling that it will play well with the electorate. But it’s usually not a good time to discuss rational drug policy. And I think President Obama does not want to be accused of being soft on drugs.
TREFNY: Wasn’t this all supposed to be settled when medical marijuana was first approved by voters?SHORT: Well, yes and no. Prop 215 has been law since 1996, and it allows licensed patients to possess marijuana. But it says nothing about how they’re supposed to acquire it. That’s part of the problem – along with the fact that “all things marijuana” carry federal felony charges.
SHORT: I think this is why Justice is saying they’re not going after sick people: They’re going after illegal activities associated with medical marijuana. Their gripe is that not all of the product is getting to patients – a lot of it is getting to the recreational market.
TREFNY: So, looking forward to 2012, what’s on the horizon for medical marijuana?
SHORT: Just a couple of weeks ago, a new voter initiative to reduce penalties concerning marijuana was certified to begin collecting signatures, to put it on the ballot. A couple of similar, but different, initiatives are also in the works, so we may have another one of those multiple choice ballots to deal with about a year from now.
TREFNY: But wouldn’t any new state law, voter or legislature approved, conflict with federal law also?
SHORT: Well, again, it depends. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule One drug, like heroin, making it totally illegal on the federal level. But 16 states and the District of Columbia have some type of legality applying to marijuana. So if the states do it right, they may not get in trouble – or so they hope.