Medical marijuana activists puzzle over intent of federal raid
Medical marijuana activists were puzzling Monday over a federal raid on one of the nation’s most prominent pot legalization advocates, suggesting it may be intended to send a signal that no one was safe as the Obama administration tries to crack down on dispensaries.
But they also said the federal government may have overreached by targeting Richard Lee, who operates a dispensary, a nursery and the well-known Oaksterdam University, a school he started to try to legitimize the marijuana business.
Lee used his marijuana earnings to put a legalization measure on the California ballot in 2010 that, although it failed, is widely credited with raising the issue’s profile and increasing public acceptance of the idea nationwide.
“For them to go after someone who’s as high profile as Richard Lee likely sends a message that they will go after anyone anywhere in the state over medical marijuana and that Obama’s promises are hollow,” said Joe Elford, the chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access.
Obama promised as a candidate not to interfere with states that approved medical marijuana, and his Department of Justice advised federal prosecutors not to go after patients who were complying with state laws.
“I’m afraid this is a message from the federal government that they have no intention of honoring the pledges that they’ve made,” he said.
But Paul Chabot, president and founder of the Coalition for a Drug Free California, applauded the raid.
“For them to go after Oaksterdam, which is internationally known for flouting federal law, sends an extremely strong signal not only to California pot stores but also around the rest of the country,” said Chabot, whose organization believes marijuana should be used medicinally only in the form of a federally approved drug, such as marinol.
Chabot believes the raid will help foster opposition to the medical marijuana stores that have proliferated in California.
“I think in the last year we’ve turned the corner on marijuana,” he said. “Now we’ve seen city after city, county after county ban dispensaries.”
But Jeff Jones, an Oakland medical marijuana activist who started the city’s first cooperative in 1995 but was shut down by the federal government, said he thinks the raid could be a turning point.
He noted that it came the day before activists planned to march from San Francisco City Hall to the Federal Building for a daylong protest against the federal crackdown.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better way to get everybody there,” said Jones, who is close to Lee. “If the feds wanted to make this go away quietly, they just stoked the hornet’s nest.”
Jones, who worked with Lee on Proposition 19, the legalization measure, said that he and Lee were surprised this did not happen in 2010. He said the decision to go after Lee could galvanize the movement.
“This is helping to build political pressure countrywide,” he said. “We know this isn’t a day-to-day battle. This is a decade-to-decade battle.”
Activists expressed disappointment that the Obama administration has not made its objective clear with the California raids, making it difficult for state and local officials to know how to regulate the sale of marijuana in the state’s numerous dispensaries.
“We don’t know what they want. They’re kind of speaking out of both sides of their mouth,” said Elford, the lawyer for Americans for Safe Access. “They’re kind of judge and jury.”
“Of the hundreds of medical cannabis dispensaries in Northern California, why this one and why now?” said James Anthony, a well-known medical marijuana lawyer in Oakland who knows Lee but does not work for him.
Anthony suggested that the conflict between state and federal drug laws “requires a political solution and not cops with battering rams.”
And Elford suggested that the federal raids could drive the sale of marijuana back underground: “To the extent that you go after folks who are above-board and pay their taxes and do everything that is asked of them, you’re just going to be encouraging illegal conduct.”
-- John Hoeffel
Photo: U.S. marshals raid Oaksterdam University in Oakland on Monday. Credit: Noah Berger / Associated Press