Stop the federal pot raids


SF Chronicle, April 5, 2012

A months-long crackdown on medical marijuana by federal prosecutors has reached new heights with this week’s raids on Oakland dispensaries. It’s time to call off the overboard tactics and deal sensibly with regulating a drug that increasing numbers of Americans feel poses little harm.

The latest incident only furthers the tone-deaf image of the U.S. Department of Justice, whose agents stormed well-known medical pot dispensaries in Oakland, the de facto center of efforts to expand marijuana cultivation and use. Since last fall, federal officials have sent warning letters to landlords of outlets and served notice that Washington won’t tolerate medical marijuana sales.

It’s a ridiculous stance that mocks a serious issue. Last fall, federal prosecutors said the therapeutic use of pot had led to abuses, crime and profiteering. Spend 15 minutes outside a dispensary and it’s easy to see their point: a steady stream of customers who hardly resemble the sick and suffering intended to benefit under a “compassionate use” initiative passed by California voters in 1996.

But Prohibition Era-style sweeps won’t work. First, it’s a confusing message coming from the Obama administration, which telegraphed three years ago that a crackdown was a low priority. Since then, the policy has gone in the opposite direction: Stop all sales now.

Second, easing the availability of medical marijuana also has lowered the public’s fear factor of the drug. The result? Washington is losing all credibility by pursing efforts to shut down dispensaries. One of this week’s targets – the Oaksterdam University that teaches pot cultivation and legal rules – suggests that Department of Justice officials make no distinction among operators.

Finally, the federal raids ignore the core of the issue: bridging the gap between unbending federal controls and growing numbers of states, including California, that want updated consideration of the drug.

To be sure, court rulings and legal obstacles make change difficult. In California’s case, there needs to be more debate and study on clarifying a confused picture. The voter-passed initiative didn’t spell out rules on supplying marijuana to dispensaries, quality control, medical standards or financial operations, so there is plenty California can do to clean up its act.

Yet this confusion doesn’t excuse this week’s raids. This state has moved beyond a total ban on marijuana to a new phase: finding a workable way to allow the compassionate use of a drug. Washington should wake up to reality.