Fed crackdown on California medical marijuana: Does Obama mean it?

The Obama Justice Department last week began to rein in California's out-of-control medical marijuana industry. How sustainable is this new federal enforcement of the state's pot shops?

A year ago, Californians voted against legalizing marijuana, and last week the Obama administration decided to help them mean it.

The four US attorneys in California announced they would enforce federal drug laws by reining in a pot industry that the state had set up to be strictly nonprofit and medicinal but since has spread like a Mexican drug cartel.

The number of pot shops (“clinics”) in the Golden State has exploded into a $1.5 billion business that even ships “medical” marijuana to other states, the Feds charge, and that “has been hijacked by profiteers.”

“That is not what the California voters intended or authorized, and it is illegal under federal law,” said US Attorney Andre Birotte Jr.

The Obama administration – after appearing soft on marijuana two years ago – is doing what state law enforcement refuses to do. And the Justice Department is being smart about it by going after large-scale growers, landlords who rent to large pot dispensaries, or banks that finance growers. People using pot for medicinal therapy – which much of the medical community disputes – are not being targeted.

The real message to California and 15 other states that have some type of legal medical marijuana is this: You can’t try to legalize pot through a back door, such as exploiting its medicinal use to anyone who claims to have a headache or anxiety attack.

Keeping a lid on marijuana isn’t like Prohibition, as PBS documentary filmmaker Ken Burns points out. Alcohol has long been too widely consumed to ban completely. Pot smokers are a small minority. They are containable, especially given the well-documented adverse side effects of pot, notably on teens.

California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, needs to take this problem seriously by getting tough on doctors who make big money handing out authorization for pot use and by ensuring that the medical marijuana industry remains nonprofit. “We have yet to find a single instance in which a marijuana store was able to prove that it was a not-for-profit organization,” said US Attorney Birotte. He added that six people in a North Hollywood dispensary were indicted for selling hundreds of pounds of marijuana a month in New York and Pennsylvania. “California’s marijuana industry supplies the nation,” said US Attorney Benjamin Wagner.

The big question now is whether President Obama will buckle to political pressure from pro-pot forces and ease up the federal pressure on California’s pot industry. A short-term clampdown won’t dampen the momentum of the pro-legalization crowd that uses almost any ruse on the public.

Last year, Californians saw what an unofficial legalization was doing to their state and voted against the official kind. Mr. Obama finally got the message. And he should stay on message.

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