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US Dept Of In-Justice For All: ‘No Regrets’ On Medical Pot Stance


Eight months after the US Justice Department appeared to reverse course on its apparent
hands-off policy on medical marijuana, officials there maintain a "no regrets" stance but
acknowledge being out of their element in the face of blowback from medical marijuana supporters.


                      Return To OnlinePot’s Legal Section Main Page  




dan@hearstdc.com  (Dan Freedman)
Posted: 02/23/2012 11:47 PM


Washington —

Eight months after the Justice Department appeared to reverse course on its apparent hands-off policy on medical marijuana, officials there maintain a "no regrets" stance but acknowledge being out of their element in the face of blowback from medical marijuana supporters.

"As U.S. attorneys, it’s not our job to go out there and engage in public debate," said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, whose district is based in Sacramento. "We let our cases do the talking."


Green light in 2009

A 2009 Justice Department directive to U.S. attorneys nationwide appeared to give the medical marijuana industry a green light, stating that federal law enforcement should not give priority to cases against individuals and caregivers acting in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.

But a get-tough memo issued in June left pot backers howling that prosecutors had pulled the rug out from under the burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

Justice public affairs officials declined to make the author of the 2011 memo, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, available for an interview for this story, but later agreed to answer written questions and offered an opportunity to interview Wagner.

In a telephone interview, Wagner said "conditions on the ground" changed between 2009 and 2011, not department policy.

"It wasn’t a lack of good faith on our part," he said. "We were alarmed by explosive growth of these large commercial operations. These huge dispensaries are focused on profits, not helping sick people."

For the businesses to characterize themselves as caregivers "seemed disingenuous," he added.

Justice Department officials have always insisted the policy did not change, pointing to language in the 2009 memo stating that "commercial enterprises that unlawfully continue to market and sell marijuana for profit" remain a federal law enforcement priority.

But advocates and drug-policy experts continue to insist the Justice Department did an about-face.

Marijuana "users and operators went forward in good faith and felt burned" by the U.S. attorneys in California who announced a wave of tough enforcement actions on Oct. 7, said Craig Reinarman, a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz who closely follows the issue. "People are confused and bewildered."

Some of the misinterpretation of the 2009 policy was no accident, Wagner said.

"A lot of people had a financial interest in promoting marijuana and were probably quite deliberate in misreading it," he said.

Those words are likely to be of little comfort to medical marijuana advocates, one of whom was so convinced federal prosecutors had done a flip-flop that she even questioned President Obama about it.

Marsha Rosenbaum of San Francisco, former director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that supports marijuana use for medicinal purposes, attended a special dinner for Democratic donors in Washington last month and asked Obama whether he was aware that U.S. attorneys in California were undermining the 2009 memo.

‘Not a fringe issue’

"He gave a nuanced, thoughtful answer," Rosenbaum said in a phone interview. "He acknowledged there’s confusion, but he didn’t get specific and he didn’t mention California.

"This is not a fringe issue," added Rosenbaum, citing polls showing popular support for medical marijuana laws. Rosenbaum said she’d continue to raise funds for Obama’s re-election bid.

Federal law enforcement officials insist they have no hidden agenda.

"It’s not about a moral crusade," Wagner said. "A lot of people in this state may think prosecuting marijuana cases is the only thing we do."

Dan Freedman is national editor in the Hearst Newspapers Washington Bureau. dan@hearstdc.com