Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Marijuana battle is coming to Washington, D.C. area

By Jessica Philipps, California News Service

WASHINGTON D.C. - Even as federal prosecutors threaten to crack down on California's medicinal marijuana sites, Washington, D.C., is preparing to open a number of dispensaries in the Justice Department's own backyard.
Starting this summer, D.C. residents will be able to buy legal cannabis at local dispensaries just miles from the White House, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Cultivation centers have already begun to lease storefronts throughout Washington and the city will decide who will be able to open shops by the end of March.

Washington's laws will not be as lax as California's. In order to purchase pot, patients must be diagnosed with HIV, cancer, glaucoma, or other serious terminal or chronic illnesses, and will be authorized to carry a maximum of two ounces.

Nevertheless, in a few months residents with prescriptions can make a short pit stop on their way home from work and smoke pot right underneath the federal government's nose - even if officials can smell it.
"These laws when implemented will be in the shadow of a very recalcitrant government," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
"The DEA is based here. The drug czar's office is based here. How is that dynamic going to work when some of these entities say marijuana is not a medicine and two to three miles from his or her office will be a lawful, compliant medical marijuana dispensary?"

St. Pierre said Washington residents will be prohibited from smoking in public or at dispensaries, which means no one will be able to walk past the White House and light up a joint anytime soon.
The D.C. marijuana initiative became law after Congress opted not to overturn a ballot measure approved by the city's voters more than a decade ago. In stark contrast, the federal government's treatment of California in recent months has been less cordial.

U.S. attorneys in California have ordered federal officials to close hundreds of dispensaries throughout the state, regardless of whether they have been complying with state or local law. Licensed dispensaries have received numerous notices that give the owners two choices: terminate their stores or face criminal prosecution. San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Diego are among the cities that have been targeted by the DEA.
Colorado, Washington and Michigan are also feeling federal pressure. Lawsuits have been filed in each of those states by frustrated marijuana dispensary owners and owners who received mixed signals from local and federal authorities.

Sixteen states have legalized medicinal marijuana; however it is still illegal under federal law. The disparity in rules leaves patients and sellers under a cloud of confusion.

"It is certainly unfair that medical marijuana patients in some parts of the country are having their access to life-saving medicine interfered with and cut off when it may not be happening to others," said Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.

"There's actually explicit protection from state officials that the U.S. attorneys are ignoring," Sterling said.
One California dispensary owner from San Francisco expressed his frustration at the ease with which the DEA was able to close down his business.
"We got our notice in the mail in October, and closed 45 days later in November, along with other dispensaries who got their letters," said Charlie Pappas, chairman of the Divinity Tree in San Francisco.
The Justice Department in the District of Colombia has not yet made any moves to deter the cannabis centers from setting up shop in their own legislative jurisdiction.

D.C.'s unique status as a federal city may provide a reason for law enforcement officials to refrain from a crackdown in the capital.

"My sense is the U.S. attorney for D.C. is just not particularly interested in creating a legal and political crisis in the district. One feature of D.C. is that it is uniquely subject to the control of Congress," Sterling said.

It also means the law could be vulnerable to a change of power. A new president with stronger anti-drug policies could decide to overturn Washington's pot law.

"If Obama loses and the Republicans retain control of the House, this could all change immediately," St. Pierre said. "The only reason why the D.C. government was able to revisit medical marijuana was because the political stars aligned four years ago - a Democratic president, a Democratic Congress."

Washington residents first approved medicinal marijuana in 1998 with 69 percent of the vote. However Congress, with its unique authority over the federal city, repeatedly rejected the ballot measure.

Twelve years later Congress agreed to no longer stand in the way, clearing the path for legal pot in the capital.
President Obama's position on marijuana has changed since his election. He campaigned on a pledge to allow states to regulate their own medical marijuana laws without federal interference but reneged on these promises by allowing his Justice Department to raid growers and sellers who are complying with state and local laws.
The Obama administration's change of heart has sparked anger and disappointment among his supporters in California, and created uncertainty for local authorities.

California advocates may use Congress' non-interference in D.C. as an argument to get the federal government off their back.

"To see this in D.C., nestled among these anti-marijuana bureaucracies, it's going to create some interesting friction," St. Pierre said.

The California News Service is a journalism project of the University of California Washington Center and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Email at

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