Yesterday, an amazing thing happened on Capitol Hill: the Obama Administration publicly acknowledged that America's decades-long war on weed isn't working, and that the feds have no justification for interfering with states that want to legalize pot.
The admission came from the mouth of Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, who wrote a recent memo stating that the Justice Department will not sue to prevent Colorado and Washington States from establishing legal marketplaces for medical marijuana in their states. “In those jurisdictions that have enacted laws that legalize and seek to regulate marijuana for some purposes, this means that strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems must address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health, and other law enforcement interests,” Cole said.
While the feds will continue to prosecute organized criminals who engage in selling marijuana outside the framework of state laws, or who transport across state lines or sell to minors, etc, Cole's remarks seem to indicate that Colorado and Washington will be allowed to set up and police their respective recreational pot programs without fear of federal retaliation.
It's still too early to tell just how those states will fare, but they can't do worse than California, which despite legalizing pot for medical purposes 17 years ago, never managed to come up with an effective state-wide system for regulating the law's implementation. In fact, California legislators are currently working to enact exactly such a law that was recently proposed by San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a staunch advocate of medical marijuana, although as usual cannabis activists are still debating the merits of the law. Meanwhile, Long Beach, which invited collectives to participate in a lottery to apply for expensive city permits before refusing to provide any and then banning the clubs, is now poised to allow them again, under a new city law currently being worked out.
Nor is it clear exactly how federal prosecutors will follow Cole's memo. A spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, who is trying to seize Oakland's mega-dispensary, Harborside, told the East Bay Express that the memo won't affect her work. “At this time the US Attorney is not releasing any public statements,” the spokesperson said. “The office is evaluating the new guidelines and for the most part it appears that the cases that have been brought in this district are already in compliance with the guidelines. Therefore, we do not expect a significant change.”
Here in Orange County, as the Weekly has already reported, federal prosecutors are no less zealous than Haag. Internal emails show that, contrary to public assertions, the feds explicitly have sought to eradicate all dispensaries, regardless of whether they follow state law, and still haven't dropped an asset forfeiture case against an Anaheim landlord who evicted a dispensary the feds accuse of selling $27 worth of medical pot.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).