Is Obama cracking down on medical marijuana?

Ramped-up raids have weed dispensaries fearing a renewed federal assault on their state-granted rights

Medical marijuana
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Wednesday raided at least 14 medical marijuana dispensaries in the Seattle area, the largest such operation since weed dispensaries opened in the state in 1998, according to the Seattle Times.

The raids were aimed at dispensaries allegedly making illegal sales to non-patients "to satisfy their own personal greed," and were not an assault on law-abiding shops, according to the DEA.

"State laws of compassion were never intended to protect brash criminal conduct that masquerades as medical treatment," the U.S. Attorney in Seattle, Jenny Durkan, said in a statement.

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Washington legalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana in November, becoming one of only two states in the nation — Colorado is the other — to allow anyone to get high. However, the federal government still considers the drug illegal and maintains the power to regulate it in every state.

In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the administration would not target medical marijuana dispensaries so long as they complied with state laws. Yet since the start of 2011, under new guidelines from the DEA, the feds have aggressively pursued dispensaries by "busting growers who operate in full compliance with state laws, vowing to seize the property of anyone who dares to even rent to legal pot dispensaries, and threatening to imprison state employees responsible for regulating medical marijuana," Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson wrote last year.

In June 2011, the Justice Department tried to clarify the Obama administration's stance, with Deputy Attorney General James Cole writing in a memo that anyone "in the business of cultivating, selling, or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law."

More from that memo:

Consistent with the resource constraints and the discretion you may exercise in your district, such persons are subject to federal enforcement action, including potential prosecution. State laws or local ordinances are not a defense to civil enforcement of federal law with respect to such conduct, including enforcement of the CSA. Those who engage in transactions involving the proceeds of such activity may also be in violation of federal money laundering statutes and other federal financing laws. [Justice Department]

Since President Obama took office, his administration has spent $300 million combating medicinal marijuana, according to a June report from Americans For Safe Access, a pro–medical marijuana group.

The administration has yet to offer a clear enforcement policy now that Washington and Colorado have legalized all marijuana use, saying only that an official position will be delivered "relatively soon." In the meantime, federal agents have continued to hound medical marijuana dispensaries.

In May, the DEA sent letters to 11 Seattle-area dispensaries warning them of violations, and giving them 30 days to comply or face federal action. It's not clear if Wednesday's raids were related to those letters. And last month, DEA agents took action against over 100 medical marijuana dispensaries in California.

Those efforts elucidated the administration's policy toward weed dispensaries: Come down hard on scofflaw clinics, but leave others alone. Deputy AG Cole wrote in his 2011 memo that due to "limited federal resources," the government couldn't possibly go after everyone, so it should focus its efforts on those operating in violation of state law. And it also advised law enforcement officers to take a hard look at the mega-facilities with annual revenues in the millions of dollars that have sprouted up as more and more states relaxed their marijuana laws.

Fearing a wider crackdown, California's Democratic Party has already issued a resolution demanding that Obama back off. Whether the administration will do so is yet to be seen.

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