Why Barack Obama's marijuana betrayal should surprise nobody

Jun 7, 2012
Alexander Cockburn

The man who smoked pot when he was a teenager has presided over millions of marijuana arrests

A HEART in love will decipher every squiggle in the letter as a kiss. In the final days of the 2008 campaign and in the opening ones of his administration, President Obama and his top legal aides seemed to the eager ears of marijuana legalisers on the West Coast to be opening the door to a new, sensible era.

Here was the basic line as dispensed by Attorney General Eric Holder on 18 March 2009: "The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law. To the extent that people do that and try to use medical marijuana laws [such as California's Prop 215] as a shield for activity that is not designed to comport with what the intention was of the state law, those are the organisations, the people, that we will target. And that is consistent with what the president said during the campaign."

The next day drug activists exulted in a big win. "Today's comments clearly represent a change in policy out of Washington," Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance told the LA Times. Holder, Nadelmann added in the New York Times, had sent a clear message to the DEA that the feds now recognise state medical marijuana laws as "kosher".

Striking a different sort of exultant note, the US Attorney's spokesman in Los Angeles, Thom Mrozek, told the LA Times: "In every single case we have prosecuted, the defendants violated state as well as federal law."

On 22 January (two days after Obama's inauguration) DEA agents conducted a raid on a South Lake Tahoe cannabis dispensary run by a wheelchair-bound entrepreneur named Ken Estes. They seized about five pounds of herbal medicine and a few thousand dollars. No arrests were made. "It was a typical rip-and-run," Estes said.

On February 3, the DEA raided four cannabis dispensaries in the LA area. Eight days later DEA agents busted the Mendohealing co-operative farm in Fort Bragg, California.

What the love-lost Obamians forgot is how to read political declarations with a close and cynical eye, and to bear in mind the eternal power struggles between federal prosecutors and enforcers: eg. the DEA and equivalent state bodies.

The feds wanted to make it completely clear that, whatever Obama might hint at, they weren't going to be hog-tied by wussy state laws. Bust a guy in a wheelchair, bust a dispensary, make your point: I'm the man.

Meanwhile, what has been happening out in the fields, dells, plastic greenhouses, indoor grows in the counties of Mendocino and Humboldt? The timeless rhythms of agriculture: overproduction, plummeting prices, the remorseless toll of costly inputs like soil and fertilisers.

Back in the early 1990s the price to grower per pound was around $5,000. A couple of years ago, the average had dropped to about $2,000, more for really skilled growers, who "black box" their greenhouses, darkening them earlier each day to trick the plants into putting out an early crop. Right now, it's down to maybe $1,000 a pound in the autumn, dropping to $600 in the Christmas rush. Do these prices bear any relation to the prices in the fancy dispensaries in southern California? Guess. 

Bruce Anderson, editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, describes the realities: "In just the last week, raids were conducted on two homes, one in Eureka, one in Redwood Valley, where better than $400,000 cash was confiscated by the forces of law and order.

"Every time the cops make big cash hauls more people are convinced that they, too, should get into the pot business. Looked at objectively, and all things considered, the nebulous legal status of marijuana is perfect for Mendocino County's financial well-being. Every year the cops take off just enough dope to keep pot prices at at least a thou a pound."

Legalisation would further depress the Mendocino County economy, and depress it big time. Short of legalisation, nothing is going to stop any kind of grow, indoors or outdoors. Because there is nothing that can be done short of legalisation.

But legalisation is not a realistic prospect and so the status of the herb will inevitably remain cloudy. For its part, the DEA is announcing big impending raids in Mendocino County, some targeting the vast stretches of the (federally) controlled Mendocino National Forest, and the growers drawing on the waters of the middle Eel.

There are serious environmental and criminal issues here. Obama said at the start of his administration: "I can't ask the Justice Department to ignore completely a federal law that's on the books. What I can say is, 'Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritise your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.'"

As Mark Scaramela, also of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, says, there are growers, many of them violent, using public lands. Who wants to go hiking and run into a criminal operation? These same growers are responsible for associated illegal water diversions and serious environmental degradation. In one recent raid they took a mile of black plastic irrigation pipe out of the Mendocino National Forest.

Fine for the Feds to go into action here. What's not fine is a far-reaching national campaign against medical growers right across the US. All the usual arsenal of harassments have been brought into play by multiple agencies, starting with the IRS, bankrupting dispensaries by simply denying elementary business expenses.

Has the drug war – as a war on the poor – slowed down? In 2010 some 850,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana-related offences, of which the vast majority was for possession. That means since Obama took office it is likely well over 2.5 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana.

This under the aegis of a president who cosily discloses his marijuana habit as a young man. One bust, Mr Obama, and you'd still be on the South Side of Chicago. But then, your sense of self righteousness is too distended to be deflated by any sense of hypocrisy.

The war on marijuana has nothing to do with medical properties and so forth. Drug policy in the US is about social control. That's the name of the game.

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hello from an American who spends a great deal of time in the Mendocino National Forest. It is a wonderful and very wild place and it is a shame to see it being literally trashed by the drug cartels. I've volunteered on many cleanup projects and the animal carcasses (they seem to shoot or poison everything) and mounds of trash are just terrible. Decriminalization or legalization is obviously the only answer. 

did Al Franken realize when he titled his book Lying Liars that he was describing virtually all politicians in this country?  Probably not.