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Obama, the happy drug warrior

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POSTED April 7, 2012 1:05 a.m.

Why is the federal government under President Barack Obama arguably tougher on medical marijuana operations than it was under George W. Bush? That’s the question that anti-drug-war groups have been asking themselves for months.

In 2008, antiprohibitionists thought an Obama administration would not tread on medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they are legal. Obama’s 2008 campaign spokesman, Ben LaBolt, told me Obama “believes that states and local governments are best-positioned to strike the balance between making sure that these policies are not abused for recreational drug use and making sure that doctors and their patients can safely access pain relief.”

Now that Obama’s in office, however, the Department of Justice is not allowing the 16 states that have legalized medical marijuana to self-regulate. Exactly the opposite: Last fall, U.S. attorneys in California warned landlords that they must evict medical marijuana clubs or risk having their assets seized. In October, the Internal Revenue Service informed dispensaries that they cannot declare standard tax deductions, because they are criminal enterprises.

“Drug kingpins and cartels don’t file taxes. We do,” Steve DeAngelo, director of medical marijuana giant Harborside Health Center, told MSNBC. “But no business, including ours, can survive if it is taxed on its gross revenue. The IRS is trying to tax us out of existence.”

On Monday, the feds raided the apartment of and the medical marijuana businesses run by Richard Lee, the wheelchair-bound pro-marijuana activist who put more than $1 million into the 2010 Proposition 19 campaign to legalize marijuana in California.

According to news reports, Lee’s supporters came out to protest the raid, and some punctuated their point by lighting up in public. Such antics reinforce law enforcement’s suspicion that recreational users are hiding behind the skirts of medical marijuana.

The thing is that Obama the candidate said he’d let locals decide how to handle any abuses, and there is local enforcement. According to the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris, there were 16,585 felony marijuana arrests in 2010. Some cities go after dispensaries suspected of illegal trafficking; others choose to use their resources on higher priorities. (Lee points out that Oakland police were detailed to control crowds that had gathered to protest the raid on his Oaksterdam University on the day of the horrific Oikos University shootings.)

An Obama official informed me that the administration has not changed positions. The administration always maintained that federal officials have the authority — indeed, a duty — under the Controlled Substances Act to go after traffickers who use medical marijuana as a pretext.

But Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, sees an escalation in federal raids. “Arrests have not been made every time there’s been a raid,” Hermes observed. “We call them ‘smash and grab.’ DEA agents come in, guns drawn — ski masks, even. They destroy the place. They take everything” — computers, money, plants.

This is what bothers me: The feds can use their ability to raid and to intimidate landlords without having to prove anything in court.

Lee’s attorney, Laurence Jeffrey Lichter, told me U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag has not charged his client, and he hopes she will not. To Lichter, raiding without charging beats prosecuting club operators.

Hermes, however, has big issues with Justice’s big-footing. He sees an aggressive campaign to drive medical marijuana clubs out of business — even if that means cutting off sick people’s access to the drug.

“What happens if they’re successful?” Harborside’s DeAngelo asked. “Cannabis doesn’t go away. Medical cannabis doesn’t go away.” Marijuana instead goes to the street, and the money winds up with “the Mexican cartels.”

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