On Tuesday March 15, officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided two medical marijuana dispensaries – Alternative Herbal Health Services and Zen Healing – in West Hollywood, California. The raids were the first to take place in the city since the Obama administration reversed federal policy targeting marijuana dispensaries that complied with state laws.
The day before, DEA raids also swept through Montana, forcing at least one business, Montana Cannabis, to close its doors. One marijuana advocate called the action a “blatant, obvious, calculated, bullying interference by the federal government.”
But wait. Didn’t the Obama administration say it wouldn’t pursue cases against marijuana dispensaries that are legal under state law (16 states have legalized the drug – California and Montana being two of them)?
The answer is more nuanced and complex than most marijuana advocates would like to admit. In 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder did issue a memo that outlined guidelines on federal action, telling authorities not to arrest or prosecute users of suppliers who are not breaking any local laws.
But the Holder memo does not have the force of law behind it, and district attorneys general throughout the country can ultimately decide how they will treat the federally-regulated Schedule 1 drug. Details of the recent California and Montana raids are still largely unknown, as the DEA has yet to comment on why they took place or what was seized.
According to William Kroger, an L.A.-based attorney representing the two West Hollywood dispensaries, the dispensaries both complied with Holder’s guidelines better than most other dispensaries, yet they still got raided.
“The federal government could come into West Hollywood and say…they’re going to go after them,” Kroger told The Daily Caller. “It’s just a numbers game. When they pick your number out of that hat, they pick that number.” He went on to add that there are a number of different levels of regulation a dispensary has to comply with just to be deemed legal by the state.
“My sense is that on one hand, there is this message coming from the Obama administration on medical marijuana saying ‘don’t push this too far,’” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Daily Caller. “But when it gets carried out by federal law enforcement, any nuance in that message gets lost, and people in federal law enforcement try to push it back even further than the Holder memo would suggest.”
“Why does it have to be armed agents? Why the need for a show of force like this?” Nadelmann added, before calling the recent raids “very heavy-handed response by the Justice Department that appears inconsistent with the Holder memo and the general message of the Obama administration.”
Chris Goldstein, founder of Freedom Is Green, and a leader in reforming state laws on the East Coast for medical marijuana, called the DEA raids, “state-sanctioned robbery.”
“The important thing here is they never arrest anybody,” Goldstein told TheDC. “They go in, take the money and the marijuana, and that’s it. It’s essentially a robbery…but where does the money go?” He went on to say that during raids, the DEA isn’t doing any real enforcement, just “stealing product and cash.”
So where does President Obama fit in? Marijuana legalization advocates say the president should be taking a harder stance on the issue.
“There was a lot of great hope and expectations for the Obama administration,” said Goldstein, “and there has been a fair amount of letdown.”
“One statement from the president could normalize how the DEA and U.S. attorneys treat state-authorized medical marijuana facilities,” he added. “Right now, that Holder memo doesn’t do it.