Obama administration accused of betraying election promises as it gives scores of outlets until Saturday to shut up shop
Ed Pilkington in New York
The Obama administration is heading towards an ugly confrontation with California’s medical marijuana dispensaries after the federal government ordered dozens of outlets to close by Saturday or face an immediate crackdown.
Growers and sellers of marijuana for medicinal use say the threats amount to a betrayal of campaign promises made by Obama in 2008, and that they fear a nationwide attempt to destroy the burgeoning industry. Partly encouraged by Obama’s campaign messages that he would not use federal force against practitioners complying with state laws, dispensaries have spread over the past two years across 16 states, including Arizona, New Jersey, Delaware and Maine as well as Washington DC, with a combined annual turnover of up to $100bn.
California, which permitted medical marijuana in a referendum in 1996, is by far the leader in the field, with some reports suggesting it has more dispensaries than Starbucks coffee houses. Nobody knows precise figures, given the still murky nature of the business, but there are thought to be more than a million Californians who are registered with doctors for growing and consuming cannabis, and hundreds of thousands more across the country.
The Obama administration has steadily toughened its approach over the past two years, arguing that medical marijuana has become a front for illegal distribution of the drug. This summer it sent out letters to several towns in states across America, including California, which have passed their own independent regulations permitting the medical use of the drug. Prosecutors pointed out that cannabis remained illegal under federal law and warned the municipalities, from Montana to Rhode Island, not to allow cultivation on their land.
Then, on 7 October, federal prosecutors held a press conference in which they announced they were extending their threatened action to landlords who provided rental space to dispensaries, giving them 45 days to send their tenants packing or face the consequences. For many of those outlets, the deadline runs out on Saturday.
“This is a clear case of the federal government overreaching itself,” said Morgan Fox of the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project. “It goes against what Obama said many times in his presidential campaign, so either he has lost control of the Department of Justice or he is betraying his election promises.”
It is not known how far the federal authorities intend to go in enforcing their threats; the sight of Swat teams going in to smash dispensaries used at least in part by seriously ill patients may not produce the most sympathetic headlines in the more liberal towns and cities of California. But already the chill has spread, and several outlets are understood to have shut their doors or been evicted by landlords.
Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, ASA, the largest pro-medical marijuana group in the country, said the Obama administration was being substantially more aggressive on this issue than its Bush predecessor. “We are seeing a new vitality in the attacks against medical marijuana and that’s extremely troubling. Political will in this country is changing, and its about time the administration caught up with it.”
A recent Gallup poll found that for the first time since records began, more than a half of Americans were in favour of legalising all marijuana use.
ASA has filed a lawsuit that accuses the department of justice of violating the 10th amendment of the constitution, which devolves any power not specifically delegated to the federal government to the states.
Further lawsuits have been launched across California pressing for a temporary restraining order on the federal authorities to prevent raids happening after the 45-day time limit is reached.