DEA pot raids go on; Obama opposes

President vowed to end policy

Stephen Dinan and Ben Conery, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Thursday, February 5, 2009

Drug Enforcement Administration agents this week raided four medical marijuana shops in California, contrary to President Obama's campaign promises to stop the raids.


DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart

The White House said it expects those kinds of raids to end once Mr. Obama nominates someone to take charge of DEA, which is still run by Bush administration holdovers.

“The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws, and as he continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government, he expects them to review their policies with that in mind," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said.

Medical use of marijuana is legal under the law in California and a dozen other states, but the federal government under President Bush, bolstered by a 2005 Supreme Court ruling, argued that federal interests trumped state law.

Dogged by marijuana advocates throughout the campaign, Mr. Obama repeatedly said he was opposed to using the federal government to raid medical marijuana shops, particularly because it was an infringement on states' decisions.

“I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue," Mr. Obama told the Mail Tribune newspaper in Oregon in March, during the Democratic primary campaign.

He told the newspaper the "basic concept of using medical marijuana for the same purposes and with the same controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors, I think that's entirely appropriate."

Mr. Obama is still filling key law enforcement posts. For now, DEA is run by acting Administrator Michele Leonhart, a Bush appointee.

Special Agent Sarah Pullen of the DEA's Los Angeles office said agents raided four marijuana dispensaries about noon Tuesday. Two were in Venice and one each was in Marina Del Rey and Playa Del Ray -- all in the Los Angeles area.

A man who answered the phone at Marina Caregivers in Marina Del Rey said his shop was the target of a raid but declined to elaborate, saying the shop was just trying to get back to operating.

Agent Pullen said the four raids seized $10,000 in cash and 224 kilograms of marijuana and marijuana-laced food, such as cookies. No one was arrested, she said, but the raid is part of an ongoing investigation seeking to trace the marijuana back to its suppliers or source.

She said agents have conducted 30 or 40 similar raids in the past several years, many of which resulted in prosecutions.

"It's clear that the DEA is showing no respect for President Obama's campaign promises," said Dan Bernath, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, which advocates for medical marijuana and for decriminalizing the drug.

California allows patients whose doctors prescribe marijuana to use the drug. The state has set up a registry to allow patients to obtain cards allowing them to possess, grow, transport and use marijuana.

Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group in California, called the raids an attempt to undermine state law and said they were apparently conducted without the knowledge of Los Angeles city or police officials.

He said the DEA has raided five medical marijuana dispensaries in the state since Mr. Obama was inaugurated and that the first took place on Jan. 22 in South Lake Tahoe.

"President Obama needs to keep a promise he made, not just in one campaign stop, but in multiple speeches that he would not be spending Justice Department funds on these kinds of raids," Mr. Hermes said. "We do want to give him a little bit of leeway, but at the same time we're expecting him to stop this egregious enforcement policy that is continuing into his presidency."

He said he is aware that Mr. Obama has not installed his own DEA chief but that new Attorney General "Eric Holder can still suspend these types of operations."

The Justice Department referred questions to the White House.

Whiff of change in federal pot policy

Obama administration likely to rein in DEA raids against medical marijuana dispensaries

Published: Sunday, February 8, 2009 at 4:28 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 8, 2009 at 7:54 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- The White House won't say it explicitly. Neither will the Drug Enforcement Administration. Yet there is a whiff in the air that U.S. policy is about to change when it comes to medical marijuana.

The message is clear, said UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, a former Justice Department official and an expert on crime and drug policy.

"It is no longer federal policy to beat up on hippies," Kleiman said.

Tell that to the DEA.

In California this past week, agents raided four dispensaries in Los Angeles and seized 500 pounds of pot.

"It's a little bit surprising, because I think current DEA management didn't get the message," Kleiman said. "The message is, this is no longer drug warrior time. We are not on a cultural crusade against pot-smoking."

California law permits the sale of marijuana for medical purposes, though it is still against federal law.

Thirteen states have laws permitting medicinal use of marijuana.

California is unique among them for the presence of dispensaries, businesses that sell marijuana and even advertise their services.

Legal under California law, such dispensaries are still illegal under federal law.

"Anyone possessing, distributing or cultivating marijuana for any reason is in violation of federal law," Sarah Pullen, a DEA spokeswoman in Los Angeles, said Thursday.

That may be the law, but it contradicts Obama's medical marijuana position.

"The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws, and as he continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government, he expects them to review their policies with that in mind," said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro, repeating past statements.

So on Friday, DEA officials in Washington declined to comment at all on the subject.

As a presidential candidate, Obama repeatedly promised a change in federal drug policy in situations where state laws allow use of medical marijuana.

"I think the basic concept of using medical marijuana for the same purposes and with the same controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors, I think that's entirely appropriate," Obama told the Mail Tribune of Medford, Ore., last March.

A year earlier at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Obama said: "I would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users."

At age 47, Obama is part of a generation that had plenty of exposure to pot.

In his memoir "Dreams From My Father," he described time spent as a youth struggling with questions about his race and identity, and turning to drugs -- including marijuana and cocaine -- to "push questions of who I was out of my mind."

The president is unlikely to make any official change in policy before he has a new DEA chief and drug czar in place.

Yet experts believe it is already clear the Obama administration will change the strategy, if not the law, on medical marijuana.

Philip Heymann, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration who is now a Harvard professor, said it's time for the agency to put more effort into fighting drugs more dangerous than marijuana.

"I do expect him to appoint an administrator who takes marijuana less seriously than is traditional for the DEA, as I think most Americans do," Heymann said.

Heymann said he expects the Obama administration will eventually instruct the DEA to emphatically scale back raids on dispensaries, and conduct such raids only in instances where investigators believe a business is abusing the dispensary system as a cover for other criminal behavior.

So last week's raids in California may be the last of their kind.

"The DEA's not likely to want to confront a new president," Heymann said. "It may simply be that they're behaving as they have traditionally, and they haven't anticipated the change Obama and his spokesman are signaling."

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