Longform

In a Strange About-Face, the President Tries to Hack Medical Marijuana Off at the Knees

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All of which leaves him fighting at partial speed. That, in turn, leaves the "zealots" Taber mentions betting their money and freedom that even if the feds throw the book at some, it won't be them.

Last week, the feds raided several growing operations in California and Oregon, including one in Mendocino County that appeared to be playing by state rules. But it seems safe to assume that few of the hundreds of other growers in Mendocino County did not uproot their crops in response — just as the hundreds of dispensaries in California did not immediately close their doors after the feds' ominous warning on October 7.

The industry seems to be practicing a form of civil disobedience. And it has tens of thousands of seriously sick people behind it, who will holler loudly if they're forced back to the black market.

Indeed, there are some signs that Obama's crackdown will be what SF Weekly's Chris Roberts calls a "passive aggressive" strategy. Rather than offend Americans with news footage of police raids, Obama has launched a war of attrition.

Landlords, worried the feds will steal their property, will tell dispensaries to move out. Banks won't handle money for pot-themed businesses. Dispensaries will be taxed so heavily they won't be to cover the payroll or pay the electric bill.

Yet it remains to be seen whether federal prosecutors, who undoubtedly have even more serious criminals with which to contend, are willing and able to carry out the threat. When Jack Gillund, Melinda Haag's spokesman, was asked whether her office had the resources to go after every dispensary or grower who doesn't comply with the 45-day deadline, he responded: "No comment."

Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in California's Eastern District, says Wagner's goal isn't to shut down everything. He's focusing on "large, professional, money-making operations — the commercial operations."

Horwood also says it's wrong to call it "Obama's crackdown." She says the California U.S. Attorneys decided to take action on their own because the situation has grown out of control among recreational users. But she acknowledges that they received Obama's blessing.

It's classic political strategy: Send the underlings out to take the heat, while the bosses hide under their skirts.

Either way, the end result casts Obama as even more zealous than George W. Bush. Bush threatened owners of dispensary properties in 2007 but never followed up. Meanwhile, Colorado and other states have seen no similar crackdowns. Only time will tell whether Obama plans to destroy the entire medical-marijuana industry or merely smack California around for a while.

"I'm willing to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt," says Blair Butterworth, a Democratic consultant in Seattle, where about 100 dispensaries operate. "In California, they may be sitting on uncontrollable drug sales. They need to slap some wrists."

It's easy to pick on California, a state known for its excesses. But "the last thing Obama needs right now is to go to war nationally with the medical-marijuana community," Butterworth says.

Leniency for marijuana users, medical or otherwise, continues to be a popular Democratic stance, he says. Butterworth is helping the campaign put outright legalization on the Washington state ballot next year. He thinks it's got a good chance.

Of course, a successful election could just tick off the feds even more.

An estimated one million people in California have obtained a doctor's recommendation to grow and use marijuana legally.

More than 150,000 medical-marijuana patients had registered in Colorado, as of July. Tens of thousands of patients are registered in the other weed-friendly states.

If the feds shut down every dispensary in the country, all these people will still be able to legally possess marijuana — no matter where they bought it — under their state laws.

The only difference is they'll be forced to go back to buying their weed from Mexican drug cartels, rather than from Americans who provide jobs and pay taxes.

It's akin to the feds saying that Anheuser-Busch can no longer sell beer; they'd prefer that people only buy from Al Capone.

Hey, wait — didn't something like that happen?

If the feds shut down every dispensary in the land, medical-marijuana patients still can possess pot legally under state laws — they'll just have to go back to buying it from Mexican drug cartels rather than from taxpaying and job-providing Americans.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.