Confusion reigns over medical marijuana as states and Feds clash
Sixteen states allow medical marijuana for patients with prescriptions. But the Feds have lately cracked down on what they say are abuses by the burgeoning industry. Will 'pot wars' ensue?
A "giant mess" is how Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar sees the conundrum over the expansion of medical marijuana, which is seen across the city in the growing number of patients with prescriptions, dispensaries popping up faster than Starbucks shops, and neighborhood complaints about rising crime and traffic.Skip to next paragraph
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The root of the "mess"? The challenge of carrying out the will of Californians, who in 1996 voted to decriminalize marijuana sales and possession for medicinal use, even as the federal government still deems marijuana, "medical" or not, to be an illegal drug, he says.
Such is the case in 15 other states that allow medical marijuana, leaving their local governments to sort out for themselves whether to encourage an above-board marijuana industry, as Oakland, Calif., has done, to fight it tooth and nail on grounds it's illegal under federal law, or to otherwise regulate it. Whatever they decide, it carries the risk of being in trouble with either state officials or federal authorities.
It's been a wild ride for L.A. Two years ago, the city council voted to allow dispensaries and then watched them proliferate to more than 800. As neighborhood residents complained about perceived jumps in crime, the council last year moved to restrict the outlets. Now it's not clear if the city even has that authority: A federal judge ruled in November (in a case from neighboring Long Beach) that marijuana is a drug subject to federal, not local, regulation.
California's law, says Mr. Huizar, "doesn't allow for local governments to regulate the ill effects of having marijuana so easily available. We've been trying to establish a balance between those who need it legally for medical reasons, and yet not be too easy for others who just want it to get high."
In the 15 years since California became the first state to adopt a medical marijuana law, the nation's general drift has been toward greater tolerance of marijuana use. Under President Obama, the Justice Department steered US prosecutors away from charging "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana" – though many say that no longer is the case.
Some say that Obama policy contributed to the current confusion, with the Feds missing in action as a patchwork of state laws and local rules sprang up around medical marijuana – much as has happened with illegal immigration. Lately, the Justice Department has moved to clamp down on marijuana dispensaries and growers, especially in California, citing large-scale criminal activity. Since October, for instance, federal agents have closed almost two-thirds of the 222 medical marijuana outlets in San Diego.
Mr. Obama "made it sound like he was going to take a different tack than his predecessor – that they are not going to go after patients but only large collectives," says Robert Mikos, a law professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "The simplified media sound bites made it look like they weren't going to enforce the ban, and when they did, marijuana advocates overdramatized it."
Most recently, the governors of three medical marijuana states – Washington, Rhode Island, and Vermont – petitioned the US government to reclassify marijuana as a drug with accepted medical uses, claiming the reclassification is needed so their states can regulate its safe distribution without risking federal prosecution.