In 2009 my friend Tyler developed melanoma on his skin. He went through all the usual chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which made him quite ill. He became a medical cannabis patient to help him address that. About a year later, he was pronounced in the clear and he went out and bought himself a bright-red Chevy Camaro as a reward. He was in his early-30s at the time, six-foot-three and strong as a horse, with a good job and solid health insurance, and it looked like he’d have the rest of his life to forget about his brush with cancer…
Then, in May 2010, his doctors had bad news for Tyler (not his real name, of course, since he has a job he’d like to keep). The melanoma had gotten into his lungs and was at Stage 4. Tyler’s chances for living more than six months were small. He went on an experimental chemotherapy — one that turns his skin orange if he’s exposed to any sunlight — and continued using medical cannabis. One day he told me that he didn’t expect to see the end of 2010.
It’s 2011 and Tyler is still alive, thanks to the chemo and cannabis. I ran into him in our neighborhood the other day. He knows I do a lot of work on medical cannabis issues and asked me what the latest news was. I told him about the Cole Memo, issued at the end of June, and how it was basically a backing off by the Obama Administration on its earlier hands-off policy on medical cannabis in states with medical cannabis laws. I told Tyler how the DOJ claimed it would still respect individual patients and their caregivers, but that the feds now equated larger medical cannabis grows and dispensary owners as being part of international drug cartels.
“Are these people nuts?” Tyler said.
I said that they must be, or at least that they must be badly out of touch with the realities of medical cannabis (difficult to grow in sufficient quality for the average patient or caregiver) and patient care. Tyler uses the services of a local dispensary in Seattle, one that will likely be forced to close later this month when Washington State’s new medical cannabis law takes effect. The new law fails to protect dispensaries due to Governor Christine Gregoire vetoing major sections of a bipartisan bill after federal officials told her they could arrest state employees who licensed such operations. As a result, patients like Tyler could well be forced into the black market — which is where I think the international drug cartels are located — in order to be able to obtain the cannabis that he needs to keep his weight up so he can tolerate the chemo that keeps him alive and turns his skin orange.
Tyler and I both talked about the absurdity of me or his parents (lifelong Republicans!) growing cannabis for him. We all have equally-powerful black thumbs and, since I live in a smallish apartment, growing isn’t exactly an option for me. So Tyler is highly dependent on dispensaries and cooperatives. He asked me why the feds had gone so far in the drug warrior direction on medical cannabis given the President’s earlier sensitivity on the issue.
“Politics,” I said.
Although the Cole Memo is cast as a legal document, it is rife with politics — namely, 2012 Presidential politics. You can bet that its thrust, if not its contents, were cleared by the DOJ with the President’s political advisers, because the Cole Memo certainly runs counter to President Obama’s statements as a candidate in 2008 that he wanted to DOJ to respect states’ rights on medical cannabis and the 2009 Ogden Memo that called for federal law enforcement to respect people engaged in medical cannabis activities if they were in “clear and unambiguous compliance” with state law.
Now, in the Cole Memo, the DOJ states that it will respect individual patients and their individual caregivers, but that’s it, regardless of what a state’s law might say about medical cannabis. (And regardless of all the 10th Amendment issues hovering around medical cannabis.)
What changed between 2008 and 2009 and today? Two things: In the wake of the Ogden Memo, Colorado dramatically updated its medical cannabis law to allow for state-licensed dispensaries and grows, ones that went above-ground very aggressively; in California, Oakland and a small Delta town decided to allow for large-scale, locally-licensed medical cannabis grows. That was enough for the feds to issue memos threatening officials in Oakland and to attack medical cannabis reform in Washington State just as the State Legislature had put the finishing touches on a Colorado-like law. There were raids on dispensaries in Montana and Eastern Washington. Then came the Cole Memo.
Over the past few months, I’ve talked with sources in and around law enforcement who explain what the feds are up to in these terms: What’s going on in Colorado and Oakland looks too much like legalization for recreational use. The feds aren’t good with that even if it’s in the context of medical use. So they’re going to kick butt on anything that looks like legalization — pushy advertising, large grows, state-licensed operations — and if that means medical cannabis gets dinged up in the process, oh well. They’ve always believed that medical cannabis is little more than a gateway to legalization.
Why would the feds care about legalization when Prop. 19 failed in California last year and when there are no legalization ballot measures coming before voters anywhere in the US this year? Because 2012 is right around the corner.
You cannot understand what’s going on with medical cannabis this year without understanding that Obama is up for re-election next year and that there are likely to be at least three marijuana legalization initiatives on state-wide ballots next November in California, Colorado and Washington (and there may be ones in Oregon and, rumor tells me, Alaska as well. And, suddenly, it looks like an attempt may be made to get legalization on the ballot in Missouri as well). As he campaigns next year, Obama will be pressed on his views on legalization for adult recreational use.
There is ample evidence that the President is not comfortable with adult recreational use. In 2008, he told evangelical pastor Rick Warren this his (Obama’s) experimentation with pot and cocaine in his late-teens was his greatest moral failure in his life. The Obama Administration fought hard against California’s Prop. 19 in 2010 and I’d expect them to come out very hard against any legalization initiative next year.
But the Obama Administration is pushing back too hard on medical cannabis. I don’t make that argument as an advocate for the use of the substance, but because the raw politics in America argue for my position. Support for medical cannabis is very strong nationwide — a 2010 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 81 percent of Americans supported the legal medical use of cannabis and a March 2011 poll by Harris Interactive registered 74 percent support nationally.
There are very few issues that poll as strongly in American politics. Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for medical use. So you’d think it’d be an easy thing for the President and his administration to sort out the federal-state conflicts on medical cannabis in a sensible, intelligent way. But no. His political advisers have decided to conflate cannabis legalization with medical cannabis and push back on states with medical cannabis laws in order to cover President Obama’s flanks on the broader legalization question. There are battleground states — Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Missouri to name a few — where he’ll need to win in order to be re-elected. Anything that might be a threat to his chances in those states, he’ll find a way to address or he risks looking like a wacky liberal. Or so his handlers must believe, despite favorable public opinion polling for medical cannabis — even in the comparatively conservative South the issue polls in the 60-percent support range.
What’s clear to me is that President Obama and his advisers have blown it on medical cannabis. They’ve overreacted on an issue where they probably didn’t need to react at all. They’ve grossly overstepped limits on federal powers and introduced an imbalance into state and federal relations. The Cole Memo is a knee-jerk attempt to protect the President on an issue where he’s really not in any jeopardy.
Knee-jerk or not, the feds have now put patients like my friend Tyler in jeopardy. I hope he lives long enough to see this mess get sorted out.
By: Philip Dawdy, 4E columnist
Philip Dawdy is an award-winning journalist and member of the Washington Cannabis Association, he is now the primary 4E columnist and you can look forward to more of his expert opinions on 4evergreengroup.com each and every week.
Check out his blog here.