Obama Justice and medical marijuana

The President's justification for his crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries has to be heard to be believed

Published April 26, 2012 2:54PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Cliff DesPeaux)
(Reuters/Cliff DesPeaux)

(updated below [Fri.])

President Obama gave an interview to Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner this week and was asked about his administration's aggressive crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries, including ones located in states where medical marijuana is legal and which are licensed by the state; this policy is directly contrary to Obama's campaign pledge to not "use Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws about medical marijuana." Here's part of the President's answer:

I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it's against federal law. I can't nullify congressional law. I can't ask the Justice Department to say, "Ignore completely a federal law that's on the books" . . . .

The only tension that's come up – and this gets hyped up a lot – is a murky area where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users. In that situation, we put the Justice Department in a very difficult place if we're telling them, "This is supposed to be against the law, but we want you to turn the other way." That's not something we're going to do. 

Aside from the fact that Obama's claim about the law is outright false -- as Jon Walker conclusively documents, the law vests the Executive Branch with precisely the discretion he falsely claims he does not have to decide how drugs are classified -- it's just extraordinary that Obama is affirming the "principle" that he can't have the DOJ "turn the othe way" in the face of lawbreaking. As an emailer just put it to me: "Interesting how this principle holds for prosecuting [medical] marijuana producers in the war on drugs, but not for prosecuting US officials in the war on terror.  Or telecommunications companies for illegal spying.  Or Wall Street banks for mortgage fraud."

That's about as vivid an expression of the President's agenda, and his sense of justice, and the state of the Rule of Law in America, as one can imagine. The same person who directed the DOJ to shield torturers and illegal government eavesdroppers from criminal investigation, and who voted to retroactively immunize the nation's largest telecom giants when they got caught enabling criminal spying on Americans, and whose DOJ has failed to indict a single Wall Street executive in connection with the 2008 financial crisis or mortgage fraud scandal, suddenly discovers the imperatives of The Rule of Law when it comes to those, in accordance with state law, providing medical marijuana to sick people with a prescription.


UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan has a good post elaborating on the point made here, but partially defends Obama this way: "To be fair to Obama, he specifically said the policy was against those abusing the medical marijuana law to sell illegally." I concede it's a bit ambiguous, but I don't think that's what Obama is saying. He's not claiming they're targeting only dispensaries that sell to recreational users in violation of the law; rather, he's saying that all large dispensaries inherently have the potential to do so and must therefore be targeted (Obama: it's "a murky area where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users").

Much more important, though, is that the Obama DOJ is aggressively prosecuting dispensaries without any suggestion that they're breaking local law, and worse, is threatening states considering enacting medical marijuana laws that dispensing medical marijuana, in and of itself, even to sick people with a prescription, is a violation of federal law that will be prosecuted. So if, as Andrew suggests, Obama is actually claiming that they're only targeting medical marijuana dispensaries when they are violating state law by providing to recreational users, that's patently untrue. They are aggressively targeting medical marijuana dispensaries even when they are in full compliance with state and local law.

By Glenn Greenwald

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