Medical marijuana advocates throughout California are celebrating this week after a serious dose of good news from Washington, D.C.
In a press conference on Wednesday, February 26, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Michele Leonhart by his side, told a throng of reporters that President Barack Obama will hold true to his campaign promises and that fed-led raids of cannabis clubs operating legally under state laws will come to a close. Specifically asked about a series of DEA raids at clubs in Lake Tahoe and Los Angeles in the days immediately after Obama’s inauguration, Holder replied, “What the president said during the campaign, you’ll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we’ll be doing here in law enforcement : What he said during the campaign is now American policy.”
Despite being recognized by the State of California since 1996 as a legal form of medicine for a wide range of illnesses and conditions such as anxiety, cancer, chronic pain, and HIV, both medical marijuana users, who need a doctor’s recommendation for such status, and the dispensaries where they purchase their medicine have been targeted by dozens of DEA raids, especially during the Bush administration. While on the campaign trail, Obama frequently opined in favor of medical marijuana just as long as it was regulated with the same controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors. In fact, on one particular occasion, speaking about his experience with his mother and her fight against terminal cancer, the president said he saw no legal difference between using morphine or doctor-prescribed medical marijuana for pain management. More recently, after coming under attack in the early days of his administration for the aforementioned raids, White House spokesperson Nick Shapiro explained that Obama hadn’t even put his drug policy team in place yet and said, “The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws.”
Here in Santa Barbara, the shift in federal policy comes on the heels of a rather aggressive – if somewhat sneaky – effort by the DEA during the past 10 months to shut down cannabis clubs in the 805. By writing letters to property owners who rented their buildings to dispensaries and threatening to seize said properties if those tenants were not immediately evicted, the DEA – with follow-up face-to-face meetings and the support of the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office – shut down what had been a rather healthy medical marijuana scene practically overnight. With more than 10,000 legal pot patients in Santa Barbara County and scores more in surrounding communities, Santa Barbara – thanks to rules preventing dispensaries in just about every town from San Luis Obispo to Ventura – had become a safe haven of sorts. However, after the feds stepped in, the town’s club population shrank from around a dozen to nearly zero because no landlords were willing to take the risk. During this time, the City of Santa Barbara beefed up its oversight and regulation of the clubs, developing specific ordinances that, among other things, established legal do’s and don’ts for the clubs, where they can be located, and how they should be operated.
For the medical marijuana community, the hope is now that some of the shut-down clubs will reopen and that patients and providers throughout the state can live and medicate without fear of a DEA agent kicking down their door.
Calling the news a “welcome and big change in emphasis,” Congressmember Lois Capps, who actually lobbied Obama to hold true to his campaign positions on medical marijuana prior to Holder’s statements, explained on Friday that the Attorney General’s office has much bigger fish to fry than doctors, patients, and providers who are following their state laws. “We need to be hands-off as long as it is being handled responsibly,” said the former nurse. She then went on to add that she hopes the feds will begin to explore the role of cannabis, among other things, as a potent tool in the war against chronic pain management.
As for the club owners themselves, Josh Braun, who ran Santa Barbara’s second longest running and most popular dispensary, Hortipharm, up until his landlord was reluctantly forced to evict him last August, seemed pleased. In an email in the wake of Holder’s press conference, Braun explained, “It’s taking some time to sink in, but I believe this is truly a turning point for our movement, probably the most significant in 13 years.” He went on to add that though he remains “cautiously optimistic” about the on-the-ground implications of the “shift,” he has already received word that landlords are interested in leasing to clubs once again.