Even in the byzantine world of drug-war politics, however, going after medical marijuana dispensaries seems extraordinarily nuts.
Last Friday Lee joined with eight other members of congress and introduced H.R. 6335. It's called the Medical Marijuana Property Rights Protection Act. If it passed, it would bar the use of federal asset forfeiture laws to close legal marijuana dispensaries and "begin to align federal law to states' laws that allow for safe access to medical marijuana."
As a long-time supporter of the rights of patients to have safe and legal access to medicine that has been recommended to them by their doctors, this bill will provide clarification to California businesses and security for California patients. The people of California have made it legal for patients to have safe access to medicinal marijuana and, as a result, thousands of small business owners have invested millions of dollars in building their companies, creating jobs, and paying their taxes. We should be protecting and implementing the will of voters, not undermining our democracy by prosecuting small business owners who pay taxes and comply with the laws of their states in providing medicine to patients in need."Chances of passage? Slim-to-none. But it is nevertheless heartening to see that some congresspeople view what is happening in this matter not only as harmful, wasteful and backward, but also hypocritical and the product of what some consider the Obama administration's broken promises. The administration, however, says those who expected nobody was going to be prosecuted for dispensing medical marijuana misinterpreted the Department of Justice memo on that subject.
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Although 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing the dispensing of medical marijuana, the attacks on dispensaries are so far confined to six federal districts, the four in California and those in Colorado and Montana. That suggests, the Economist has speculated, that the attorneys in those Western states may be operating on their own, perhaps even in opposition to DOJ policy. That seems a stretch.
What set Lee off was the recent targeting for closure of three licensed dispensaries in San Francisco and Oakland by U.S. attorney Melinda Haag. That along with a threat to close all the dispensaries in the Bay Area.
Oakland's Harborside Health Center—in operation since 2006, billed as the biggest medical marijuana center in the world and cited as the city's second-biggest taxpayer—is one of those targets. While going after some dispensaries that cross the legal line seems reasonable, going after Harborside violates the stand of California voters who approved medical marijuana in 1996. The center is widely known for adhering strictly to state law, testing its product rigorously and otherwise behaving as a good citizen and a good neighbor.
What U.S. attorney's office has initiated against the owners of the property leased by Harborside and its sister operation in San Jose is the same asset-forfeiture procedures used and abused since the 1980s against both drug dealers and some buyers. Nobody wants to lose his or her property. That's what the U.S. attorney is counting on. Intimidation makes the dispensaries—all or almost all of which, big or small, operate out of rented space—particularly vulnerable. The typical landlord, no matter how sympathetic to the tenants s/he may be, is only rarely willing or able to take on the feds in such a matter, particularly when renting to someone less controversial is always an option.
In California alone, hundreds of dispensaries have been closed since October either from the threat of eviction or factually being thrown out of their rented space. According to the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, more than 300 letters like those sent to Harborside's landlords have gone out to dispensaries in California, Colorado and Montana. Some dispensaries have closed up shop because they figured they would get a letter even though they hadn't yet.
Steph Sherer, executive director of the safe access organzation said:
[L]et us not forget that with the closure of these dispensaries, thousands of patients are prevented from safely obtaining a medication that has already been deemed legal to use with a physician's approval."That's the crux, the reality of federal policy. While the government won't prosecute patients with medical marijuana prescriptions, closing dispensaries means cancer patients suffering nausea, chronic pain sufferers, people with glaucoma and numerous other serious ailments won't be able to get relief unless they go to the black market. That's the market the government has not been able to shut down since marijuana was first banned in 1937. Thus does the policy of shutting down dispensaries encourage people to become outlaws. Brilliant.
As some governors and congresspeople and state legislators have proposed, what really needs to happen is to get marijuana off Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Only myths about marijuana make it eligible for inclusion there. In the long run, as critics of existing policy have said for nearly half a century, marijuana should completely descriminalized, perhaps regulated like alcohol. For the moment, however, a law like the one that Lee has proposed would bend us back toward sanity. Too bad it probably won't even get a committee hearing.