“I would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users. It’s not a good use of our resources.” So said presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama, at a 2007 campaign event in Nashua, NH. And although proponents of medical marijuana later had reason to doubt him after his DEA agents raided a California dispensary, Attorney General Eric Holder soon reassured everyone that there would be change.
After a press conference held by Holder that took place shortly after the president’s inauguration, many celebrated what they interpreted as the fulfilment of his earlier promise that under his administration, the Justice Department would no longer raid medical marijuana dispensaries that were established legally under state law.
But was any such a promise in fact ever made? If one examines Obama’s campaign promises regarding medical marijuana and listens carefully to the answer Eric Holder gave at the press conference mentioned above, it’s possible to conclude that no protection or immunity was ever promised for organizations or individuals that cultivate or distribute medical marijuana in any state for any reason. Here’s what was actually said at the press conference that got so much attention.
A reporter made an observation and asked Holder a question about medical marijuana, saying:
“Right after the inauguration there were some raids on California medical marijuana dispensaries. Was that a deliberate decision by the Justice Department..do you expect those raids to continue?”
Holder responded to the question by saying:
“No..”, but then suddenly, before he could continue, Holder was interrupted by the same reporter, who happened to have microphone trouble at that same moment, making it almost impossible to hear what he said. One can make out the word “campaign”, but that’s about it. In any case, after the interruption, Holder continued. But his response became much more ambiguous. He said:
“What the president said during the campaign, you’ll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we’ll be doing in law enforcement. He was my boss during the campaign. He is formally and technically and by law my boss now. What he said during the campaign is now American policy.”
Just what did Obama say during the campaign? While never promising voters safety from federal raids, arrest or prosecution, Candidate Obama made numerous statements that he did not believe raiding medical marijuana users should or would be a top priority of the Justice Department under his administration. In fact, he put forth the following statement during a July of 2007 town hall meeting in Manchester, New Hampshire: ”The Justice Department going after sick individuals using [marijuana] as a palliative instead of going after serious criminals makes no sense.”
In a statement made during a November of 2007 town hall meeting in Iowa he seems to support the use of medical marijuana as a means of prescribed pain relief.
“My attitude is if the science and the doctors suggest that the best palliative care and the way to relieve pain and suffering is medical marijuana then that’s something I’m open to because there’s no difference between that and morphine when it comes to just giving people relief from pain. But I want to do it under strict guidelines. I want it prescribed in the same way that other painkillers or palliative drugs are prescribed.”
While relaying these assurances during the campaign, they are certainly not reflected in the Justice Department’s policies these days, at least when it comes to dispensaries. It seems in fact the the DOJ has taken a more direct approach, through it’s US Attorneys.
Earlier this month Governor Chafee of Rhode Island received an unsolicited letter from U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha. The letter made it clear that the Justice Department still considers marijuana cultivation and distribution to be a violation of federal law, even if done in accordance with state laws in places where medical marijuana is permitted. The letter lists potential actions the Justice Department might consider in reaction to what it deems to be violations of federal drug laws, including criminal prosecution of those involved in the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana.
Other states that have received similar letters include Washington, California, Colorado, Vermont and Arizona. And while some states, like Vermont, are proceeding with legislation to legalize the medicinal use of medical marijuana anyway, other states seem to have been deterred. Washington’s Governor Christine Gregoire, for example, vetoed most sections of S.B. 5073, which would have licensed dispensaries and protected patients from arrest. In other states, such as Arizona, where a law allowing medical marijuana has already passed, the implementation of certain measures now mandated by state law, such as the licensing of dispensaries, have been put on hold, pending the outcome of a federal court case.
Arizona’s Attorney General, Tom Horne, filed a lawsuit in federal court shortly after Department of Health Services Director, Will Humble, received a letter from U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, warning him that:
“Compliance with Arizona laws and regulations does not provide a safe harbor, nor immunity from federal prosecution.” And that, “The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona (“the USAO”) will continue to vigorously prosecute individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing, distribution and marketing activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.” [Emphasis added]
The complaint, filed by the Arizona AG names U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke as defendants and seeks a declaratory judgment, in order to resolve competing state and federal pressures. But even if the lawsuit is a sincere effort to obtain clarification and is not a mere pretext to delay the implementation of the medical marijuana law, is it really worth the delay and expense?
Enough is Enough
Both Governor Brewer and the Attorney General could save Arizonans a lot of time and money by admitting that everyone knows what the outcome will be already. The federal judiciary will claim what it has been claiming for decades: That federal law always trumps state law because of the “supremacy clause”. This has almost always been the court’s opinion, regardless of how deliberate, palpable or dangerous a violation of the Constitution the federal “law” in question might be.
For decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has engaged in naked judicial usurpation of the states’ reserved powers, by declaring that Congress has the constitutional authority to regulate or ban a plant that is cultivated, distributed and consumed, all within a state’s boundaries. Even if this plant never leaves Arizona, the Supreme Court says Congress has the authority to outlaw it because of the Constitution’s “commerce clause”.
This is a completely perverted interpretation of the “commerce clause”, of course. After all, the “commerce clause” simply states thatCongress shall have power, “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”. But what can one expect from a group of activist judges that one blogger described as nine unelected and unaccountable bureaucratic central planners who detest the limits of the Constitution?
The fact is that despite decades of case law, the federal government has no genuine constitutional authority to regulate marijuana, medical or otherwise, that is never transported across state lines for commercial purposes. The President knows it; the Attorney General knows it; Governor Brewer knows it, and those of us who know anything about the Constitution’s original meaning and intent know it. And they know we know it!
Isn’t it time that Governors and state Attorneys General stopped wasting our precious time and money playing these silly legal games, grow a spine, and actually fulfill the oath they took to support and defend the Constitution, including the Tenth Amendment? If the people of a state decide in their sovereign capacity that marijuana should be legal, for any reason, or no particular reason at all, then their representatives in state government need to tell the folks in Washington, D.C., in no uncertain terms, that they have no say in the matter.
This is the system of vertical checks and balances that the Constitution, as it was understood by those who ratified it, established. So when it comes to decisions that the Constitution clearly leaves to the states or to the people, the time is long overdue for those who claim to be our public servants on the state level, to quit begging Washington, D.C. for permission and to start doing a little more checking and balancing already!
Derek Sheriff [send him email] is a research analyst for the Tenth Amendment Center. His articles have appeared in various publications, and he writes regularly for the Center on issues related to state sovereignty and nullification. His blog and podcast “Principles of ‘98″ can be found at www.PrinciplesOfNinetyEight.Com. View his Tenth Amendment Center blog archives here, and his article archives here.