A new memo from the Department of Justice could threaten production of medical marijuana, even in states like California, where cultivation of marijuana for sale to people with medicinal licenses is legal. This seems to be a response to plans among marijuana growers, advocates, and even some city politicians, to create authorized commercial centers of cultivation.
In a letter sent earlier this week to federal prosecutors, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole wrote that the Obama administration, which generally takes a hands-off approach to prosecuting medical marijuana operations, “never intended to shield such activities from federal enforcement action and prosecution, even where those activities purport to comply with state law.” The “activities” to which Cole refers are “cultivation of large quantities of marijuana, or broadening the regulation and taxation of the substance.”
In other words, this derails localized plans to turn marijuana into a large-scale, privately operated industry, which the city of Oakland in particular had been eyeing. It also does not bode well for large-scale medical marijuana dispensaries. ”I would be hearing, ‘If you get too big, we may well put a target on your back,’” explained Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access.
According to a recent report, the legal marijuana business registered $1.7 billion in sales last year. If, as Oakland had planned, cities allowed marijuana to be cultivated on a large scale, the new procedures could mean millions of additional dollars in tax revenue. Jeff Wilcox, an entrepreneur, put the dilemma bluntly: “Oakland is so broke, and Oakland is going to be more broke next year and the year after.”
The city of Berkeley was also planning to move to similar operations, albeit on a much smaller scale. Essentially, the city’s marijuana-growing collectives would move to industrial facilites, allowing Berkeley officials to control for faulty conditions that could lead to fires, and inspecting the crops to ensure that they’re free of pesticides. Now, however, prospects seem to be dim.
The memo is puzzling because, during his campaign, Barack Obama said that the federal government should not prosecute medical marijuana growers and caregivers. Shortly after his inauguration, the justice department issued a memo explaining that this would be the administration’s official policy.
Now, the justice department says that it’s “clarifying” the previous memo, but in a way that makes it impossible for cities to move forward with commercial cultivation, and may also threaten the large-scale dispensaries that sprang up in the wake of the original policy.
The new guidelines have implications for the handful of states where medical marijuana is legal, and where growing the drug is fraught with legal complications. While it may be logical to assume that since marijuana is legal for medical use in these states, that it should be grown industrially and taxed, the federal government seems determined to make that impossible. Why the Obama administration is cracking down on large-scale pot production is unclear. But the guidelines are sure to create more tensions between state and federal governments on such a potentially lucrative enterprise, as well as threatening the chronically ill people who use marijuana to alleviate pain.