Thirteen years after California voters made the Golden State the first in the nation to legalize medical marijuana, the country's top law enforcement official told U.S. drug agents to stop raiding medical marijuana gardens and busting patients who have medical prescriptions for pot.
In a sweeping directive, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told federal authorities it's not a wise use of their time to go after people who use or provide medical marijuana in strict compliance with state law. Since California passed the groundbreaking Proposition 215 in 1996, 13 other states have passed similar laws.
The new policy puts to rest years of conflict between the federal government and California's local communities over medical pot, ending the uncertainty for medical marijuana users and growers who had been operating in fear of federal prosecution. But it is not expected to clear the way for dozens of new dispensaries to pop up throughout the state. California allows local communities to make those decisions, and even the most welcoming cities are starting to limit the number of pot clubs.
Still, in saying that federal authorities should allow states to enforce their own medical marijuana laws, Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden also made it clear in a memo that the U.S. government "will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal."
The Obama administration's new policy is a significant departure from the Bush administration's, which insisted it had the right to enforce federal anti-marijuana laws regardless of state laws.
In September 2002, the conflict between state and federal law focused international attention on Santa Cruz when members of a local medicinal marijuana organization passed out medical pot on the steps of Santa Cruz City Hall with the support of local politicians and hundreds of others as a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration helicopter circled overhead.
Weeks earlier, federal agents wielding M-16s raided a one-acre pot farm in the hills north of Davenport run by the popular Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana, arresting its founders, Valerie and Michael Corral. The Corrals, who were never charged, celebrated Monday's news.
"What's great about this is that the Obama administration is now speaking to the issue," Valerie Corral said Monday. "It's really quite remarkable — such a turn away from the Bush administration's zero-tolerance policy."
With the support of the city and county of Santa Cruz, WAMM had sued the federal government, arguing that the feds had been enforcing drug laws selectively to interfere with California's medical marijuana provisions. San Jose U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel gave the lawsuit a boost last summer, allowing it to proceed on its central assertions.
"It appears we will now be able to resolve the case" in WAMM's favor, said Santa Cruz attorney Ben Rice, one of the group's attorneys.
Holder had said in March that he wanted federal law enforcement officials to pursue those who violate both federal and state law, but it had not been clear until Monday how that goal would be implemented. Ogden's three-page memo spelling out the new policy was sent Monday to federal prosecutors in the 14 states with medical marijuana laws as well as to the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The directive, however, insisted the government would not tolerate those who use medical marijuana laws as a ruse to distribute what he called a dangerous drug. The message was clearly aimed at setting priorities and focusing enforcement efforts on "large-scale criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels."
California is home to about 800 medical marijuana clubs and dispensaries, which tend to cluster in left-leaning cities such as Santa Cruz, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. Amy Cornell, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, said she didn't know of any in the county. Many California cities have just said no.
Just last week, the Town Council in Los Gatos enacted an "urgency ordinance" after someone inquired about opening a medical pot dispensary there.
In addition to WAMM, Santa Cruz has two medical marijuana dispensaries in the Harvey West Industrial Park, home to the local Costco. Despite fears by neighbors that the businesses would lead to loitering, drug use and crime, the dispensaries have operated without controversy.
"We've had no complaints," said Santa Cruz City Councilman Mike Rotkin. "And I mean zero."
Still, Santa Cruz officials imposed a moratorium on pot clubs a few months ago because "we don't want to be perceived as the medical marijuana distribution center for Northern California."