It wasn’t clear at the time, but when the federal government abruptly steamrolled dozens of medical marijuana providers in Montana last March — the cultural equivalent of more than 900 simultaneous raids in California — it marked the start of a radical national reversal in President Barack Obama’s administration’s policy.
It was Obama himself, as a candidate in 2008, who promised to stop caring about legal medical marijuana operators in states like Montana. And it was Obama’s Justice Department that, in 2009, told U.S. Attorneys to focus on other issues and to leave alone those marijuana patients and providers who performed in “clear and unambiguous compliance” with their states’ laws.
But in its dramatic 2011 reversal of this policy, the federal government treated honorable Montanans as second-class citizens. In October, the feds gave California’s marijuana dispensaries 45 days of advance notice to shut down. In contrast, the Montanans — all of them registered with the State Health Department to grow and dispense marijuana to legal patients — got zero warning of a federal policy change.
They had been judged as legal, by all appearances, by state and local law enforcement officials, but unlike their many thousands of California counterparts today, didn’t receive the courtesy of notice that the federal government was about to suddenly reverse its policy. Why?
To add insult to injury, the federal government is now prosecuting these Montanans against whom local and state law enforcement officials had not acted — and could have had the providers been a problem. Indeed, some of those being targeted by the federal law enforcement had maintained continuous and close relations with local law enforcement.
They were proceeding professionally and had no interest in breaking the law. Instead, the nation’s taxpayers are now funding a Drug Enforcement Administration witch hunt that targets them in direct contradiction to President Obama’s promises both as a candidate and in his initial policy actions once in office. Apparently the DEA either didn’t get the memo or ignored it. Perhaps the “Drug Czar,” Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, needs to be looked at for replacement. We all know what repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result constitutes.
This situation in our state is simply unfair. It’s unfair because, in effect, the federal government set some of these people up — promising a new policy then pulling the carpet out from under those who believed a new direction of hope and change was in the works.
It’s also cruel. It’s cruel because federal courts — in further contradiction to Obama’s promises — don’t allow any consideration of a person’s adherence to state and local law. The U.S. Attorney in Montana is pursuing prosecutions that won’t permit any fairness to what is discussed in court. No mention of the state law or of compliance with it. No mention of meetings with local and state officials to ensure that compliance with law was in place.
And who is being targeted by the federal government? It isn’t everyone. The party that unquestionably profited the most from Montana’s medical marijuana law, NorthWestern Energy, hasn’t been indicted. But NorthWestern was well-aware of what many of the state’s caregivers were doing, visited their locations and helped upgrade their electrical infrastructure on a regular basis. The company is no less guilty of a “conspiracy to violate federal drug law” than were the legal Montana caregivers now in the government’s crosshairs.
And Montana banks are no less guilty of “money laundering” than the caregivers might be either. Under federal law, to take money from a patient, deposit it in the bank and use it to pay the electricity bill constitutes “money laundering.” Don’t think for a second that banks whose clients had the word “cannabis” and “marijuana” in their business names didn’t know what was going on.
They are no less guilty under federal law than anyone else, but federal prosecutions are being very selective — for what seems to be political purposes — in who is targeted by DEA investigation and those resulting prosecutions.
This situation in Montana and elsewhere magnifies the counterproductive results of modern day prohibition and needs to end immediately. This is the sort of thing that weds “Occupy Wall Street” to the legions of Americans who know the so-called “war on drugs” has been a complete failure.
Today’s prohibition effort repeats our history of alcohol prohibition in demonizing drug addiction and has enriched organized criminals while criminalizing average Americans seeking relief from pain and disease.
This all comes at tremendous cost to the treasury, with no impact in drug use or the problems it causes.
While I am personally a strong supporter of the Obama administration and Montana’s U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter, I am confused and disappointed.
This administration has some serious explaining to do, not just to Montanans but to the voters in every medical marijuana state. Some of these states — like Michigan, Colorado, Washington and Oregon — are must-win states for Obama next year, and many of the other medical marijuana states feature federal Senate races of major significance, including Montana.
Why are taxpayers now paying to persecute Americans who merely responded honestly to campaign promises and policy pronouncements of our president on medical marijuana?
William Strizich, a former legislator from Great Falls, has been involved in the criminal justice system throughout his life.