A heart in love will decipher every squiggle in the letter as a kiss. In the final days of the 2008 campaign and in the opening ones of his administration, Barack Obama and his top legal aides seemed to the eager ears of marijuana legalizers on the West Coast and around the country to be opening the door to a new, more sensible era. Here was the basic line as dispensed by Attorney General Eric Holder on March 18, 2009: “The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law, to the extent that people do that and try to use medical marijuana laws [such as California’s Prop. 215] as a shield for activity that is not designed to comport with what the intention was of the state law. Those are the organizations, the people, that we will target. And that is consistent with what the president said during the campaign.”
Drug activists exulted in a big win. “Today’s comments clearly represent a change in policy out of Washington,” Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance said to the Los Angeles Times. Holder, Nadelmann added in the New York Times, had sent a clear message to the DEA that the feds now recognize state medical marijuana laws as “kosher.”
Striking a different sort of exultant note, Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the US Attorney in LA, told the LA Times: “In every single case we have prosecuted, the defendants violated state as well as federal law.”
On January 22 (two days after Obama’s inauguration), DEA agents raided a South Lake Tahoe dispensary run by Ken Estes, a wheelchair-bound entrepreneur. In a typical “rip-and-run,” they seized about five pounds of cannabis and a few thousand dollars but made no arrests.
Less than two weeks later, the DEA raided four dispensaries in the LA area. Eight days after that came a bust on the Mendo-Healing Cooperative farm in Fort Bragg, California.
The love-lost Obamians had forgotten how to read political declarations with a close and cynical eye, and to bear in mind the eternal power struggle between federal prosecutors and enforcers—e.g., the DEA and equivalent state bodies. The feds wanted to make it completely clear that, whatever Obama might hint at, they weren’t going to be hogtied by wussy state laws. Bust a guy in a wheelchair, bust a dispensary, make your point: I’m the man.
Meanwhile, what has been happening out in the fields, dells, plastic greenhouses and indoor grows in the counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity? The timeless rhythms of agriculture: overproduction, plummeting prices, the remorseless toll of costly inputs like soil and fertilizers. Back in the early 1990s, the price to grower per pound was around $5,000. A couple of years ago, the average had dropped to about $2,000—more for really skilled growers who “black box” their greenhouses, darkening them earlier each day to trick the plants into putting out an early crop. Right now, it’s down to maybe $1,000 a pound in the fall, $600 in the Christmas rush. Do these prices bear any relation to the prices in the fancy dispensaries in Southern California? Guess.
Bruce Anderson, editor of the weekly Anderson Valley Advertiser (AVA), says that in recent weeks, “raids were conducted on two homes—one in Eureka, one in Redwood Valley—where better than $400,000 cash was confiscated by the forces of law and order. Every time the cops make big cash hauls, more people are convinced that they, too, should get into the pot business. Looked at objectively, and all things considered, the nebulous legal status of marijuana is perfect for Mendocino County’s financial well-being: every year the cops take off just enough dope to keep pot prices at at least $1,000 a pound. Legalization would further depress the Mendocino County economy, and depress it big-time. Short of legalization, nothing is going to stop any kind of grow, indoors or outdoors.”
But legalization is not a realistic prospect, and so the status of the herb will inevitably remain cloudy. For its part, the DEA is announcing big impending raids in Mendocino County, some targeting the vast stretches of the (federally controlled) Mendocino National Forest and the growers drawing on the waters of the Middle Eel.
There are serious environmental and criminal issues here. Obama recently told Rolling Stone, “I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, ‘Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books.’ What I can say is, ‘Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.’” As the AVA’s Mark Scaramella explains, there are growers—many of them violent—using these public lands. Who wants to go hiking and run into a criminal operation? These same growers are also responsible for illegal water diversions and serious environmental degradation. In one recent raid, the feds took a mile of black plastic irrigation pipe out of the Mendocino National Forest.
It’s fine for the feds to go into action here. What’s not fine is a far-reaching national campaign against medical growers. All the usual arsenal of harassments have been brought into play by multiple agencies—starting with the IRS, which has been bankrupting dispensaries simply by denying deductions for elementary business expenses. Has the drug war—as a war on the poor—slowed down? In 2010, some 850,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana-related offenses, the vast majority for possession. It is likely that well over 2.5 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana since Obama took office.
This is all happening under the aegis of a president who cozily disclosed his marijuana habit as a young man. One bust and Obama would still be organizing communities on the South Side of Chicago. But his sense of self-righteousness is too distended to be deflated by any sense of hypocrisy. The war on marijuana has nothing to do with medical properties and so forth. US drug policy is about social control. That’s the name of the game.