Speak no evil: DEA, DOJ stay mum on medical marijuana raids

Mike Riggs Contributor
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Despite campaign promises to the contrary, the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder hasn’t stopped raiding marijuana dispensaries operating in states where sale of the drug is legal for medical purposes. But the DOJ has demonstrated one marked change now that it’s under Democratic control: The department has stopped publicizing medical marijuana raids, both by requesting that more cases be sealed under court order and by refusing to distribute press releases.

Late last week, DEA and FBI agents raided five medical marijuana dispensaries in Nevada. In July, DEA agents raided the home of 65-year-old Mendocino County, California, grower Joy Greenfield and confiscated plants, money, and her computer. Also in July, DEA agents raided the home of a couple in Michigan who were licensed by the state to use marijuana, as well as three medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego. In January and  February of this year, the DEA raided two medical marijuana research labs in Colorado.

In all of the above cases, the DEA and the U.S. Attorneys’ offices issued no press releases and held no press conferences. The websites for DEA and the U.S. Attorneys’ offices in Detroit, Denver, Northern California, and Los Angeles (which also handles cases in Nevada) make no mention of the above dispensary raids, but do feature news releases for raids, arrests, and investigations involving harder drugs, as well marijuana trafficking, which is illegal in all states.

According to Americans for Safe Access spokesman Kris Hermes, this is one of the more notable differences at Obama’s DOJ, where Bush-appointee Michele Leonhart is now Obama’s choice to run the Drug Enforcement Agency. “There was a time under the Bush administration that [the DEA and U.S. Attorneys] were quite proud of their attempts to undermine state marijuana laws,” Hermes told The Daily Caller.

“Either these are rogue DEA agents and U.S. Attorneys operating in violation of Holder’s memo, or the DEA and the DOJ want to be able to go about continuing a policy of undermining state marijuana laws without drawing attention.”

Hermes suggested that the withholding of information may be a political tactic. While Pres. Barack Obama hasn’t said much about drug policy since assuming office, during his campaign, he said multiple times that he would end raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. Hermes and other marijuana activists think that the president is hiding a broken promise.

A DOJ spokeswoman denied that the department had made an official policy change regarding publicizing medical marijuana raids. “As has been the case for a long time, the [United States Attorneys’ Manual] vests authority for press decisions with the [United States Attorneys], in coordination with Main Justice,” spokeswoman Laura Sweeney told TheDC. “USAs make individual decisions on whether to issue press releases based on a number of factors.”

But even if there hasn’t been any official change, Garrison Courtney, the head of communications for the DEA from 2005-2009, confirmed that his office regularly publicized dispensary busts. “When I was chief of public affairs, if it was a good case and a good bust, we put it out. There were some of the medical marijuana shops that had a ton of cash, a ton of weed, or a ton of guns, and we put it out. There wasn’t any policy against that.”

And yet, in the case of the Michigan couple, guns were found, but no press release was ever issued by the DEA or the U.S. Attorney.

Courtney added that “if you look at the DEA website, there are a lot of [Bush-era] news releases from San Francisco and Los Angeles. We were pretty aggressive in talking about the different dispensaries and the fact that they were operating in violation of federal law.”

While Hermes faults both the DEA and U.S. Attorneys for holding back information about dispensary busts, a DEA spokesman said it is up to each regional U.S. Attorney’s office to decide when to publicize actions against a dispensary.

“U.S. Attorneys are pretty much running the train,” said DEA spokesman Michael Sanders. “If they do a vendor raid and it warrants a press release, then they will call up to the DEA special agent in charge who will give a quote to be included in the press release. We do not put out press releases on our own.”

NEXT: Abuse of court-ordered seals?

One reason why the DOJ hasn’t publicized more raids is that U.S. Attorneys’ offices can’t publicize cases that they’ve had sealed under court order.

“Generally speaking, sealing is by order of the court for law enforcement reasons,” Sweeney told TheDC. “And of course there wouldn’t be any press release if a case is sealed — if there aren’t any public court documents, we couldn’t do press – that’s true for any sealed case, regardless of whether it in involves alleged medical marijuana.”

The increasing use of court orders to seal records strikes some drug reformers as a politicization of the justice system. They point to the fact that the DEA made no arrests in the case of the two labs shut down in Colorado, in the five dispensary raids in Nevada, or in the case of 65-year-old Joy Greenfield, and yet every single case was sealed under court order.

According to Courtney, “If there was a reason to protect an informant, if information was going to be put out that was going to damage the investigation, they would seal it.” When asked if it was unusual to request a court-ordered seal for a case where there were no arrests, a top DOJ official said that “it is not unusual to have cases sealed even if there aren’t related arrests.”

Sweeney told TheDC that the DOJ did not “have any stats” that could contradict or confirm Garrison’s claim that dispensary cases were only sealed in extenuating circumstances under Bush.

In the meantime, the general public is left to wonder what dark horrors inspired the many SWAT-style raids over the last nine months. In the case of the five Nevada dispensaries raided last week, the answer just might be video games. According to dispensary owner James Parsons, DEA and FBI agents “[removed] items like an iPod, Playstation 3, and a Nintendo Wii, but [left] items like pipes, books, financial records, and even items he says will allow him to start growing once again.”