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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 3rd April 2012

For many people Oakland California is in their news today because of another campus murder outrage. Speculation is beginning to emerge as to what brought about the murder of seven people and the wounding of three others. This is, of course, a tragedy and, sadly, an all too frequent occurrence.

But, for me, the other story from Oakland, yesterday, was of equal concern. This was the federal raids on a number of premises associated with the use of Cannabis sativa, marijuana.

In the UK, there is presently a lot of debate about hinted at government changes to how electronic communications will be monitored as part of the ‘war on terrorism’ though they’ve also slipped in the idea that the measures will target organised crime. But, increasingly, surveillance is a two way street and yesterday’s events in Oakland were recorded by a great many cameras; everything from smartphones to full-size video cameras in the hands of local TV staff.

I know this because Twitter directed me to a website with a live feed showing what was happening. The same site is now providing access to recorded coverage but I should warn you that, unsurprisingly in the high tension of the unfolding events, there is a great deal of swearing on the soundtrack.

Just last week, when writing about a report from Australia on Catha edulis, khat, I said;

‘All of which sounds to me not unlike the regulatory mess that is ‘medical marijuana’ in the USA. Conflicting laws between state and federal governments and confusion over what is and isn’t permitted.’

I’ve long felt that the situation in the USA amounted to the worst of all worlds and yesterday’s events seem to confirm this. I’m not sure I fully understand what is going on but I thought I’d try and set out how I see it.

First, briefly, what happened in Oakland, yesterday. Federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), supported by US federal marshals, executed search warrants on a number of premises associated with Richard Lee. The premises included ‘Oaksterdam University’ set up by Lee to offer training in cultivating, preparing and using cannabis, a medical marijuana dispensary and Lee’s apartment. Lee was arrested, along with four employees, but released within a few hours. The federal officers took away boxes of documents, a safe, black sacks and dozens of cannabis plants.

The question to be asked is how did this happen? In October 2009, US Attorney General, Eric H. Holder, announced that federal prosecutors should not pursue cannabis users in states where ‘medical marijuana’ had been made legal. The Washington Post quoted a statement from Holder saying "it will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana."

But, in recent times, the federal government has taken to acting against people involved with medical marijuana and, it seems to me, it is doing so by applying a Machiavellian logic. The law in Oakland says that people cannot profit from selling cannabis. The theory is that medical marijuana dispensaries should be non-profit operations, probably co-operatives run by users. The federal action was taken because, it is claimed, Richard Lee is profiting from the sale of cannabis. That may be so, but you have to look at how the federal government is supporting that claim.

The IRS does not allow any costs of providing medical marijuana to be offset against tax as allowable expenses because, federally, selling cannabis is illegal and expenses incurred in an illegal business are not deductible. For the IRS, therefore, any sale proceeds from supplying marijuana are profit. Placing that interpretation on the operation of any dispensary means the federal government can show the operation is not being conducted within state laws and, therefore, it is not breaking Mr Holder’s promise when it acts against ‘patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers’.

The USA has, historically, used its tax laws to impose federal will. The IRS used non-payment of taxes to bring down the big Chicago gangsters of the prohibition era and the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act was a way of using the federal tax system to outlaw cannabis throughout the US. Now, it appears it intends to do the same to shut down the growing medical marijuana ‘business’.

But, why now and why Richard Lee? Four years ago, when Barack Obama was elected president, California voters narrowly rejected Proposition 19 that would have made cannabis legal for adult use throughout the state and with no need for proof of a medical requirement. The campaign for Prop 19 was started and funded by Richard Lee. This November a similar proposition will be on the ballot in California and polling suggests it has a very good chance of being adopted this time.

It seems to me, and I was pleased to see the San Francisco Chronicle agrees, that the federal government is anxious to do all it can to prevent that happening and thinks that disabling Lee may help them scupper the ballot. That view is reinforced by the fact that the suggestion that this is a clampdown on those who, in violation of state law, are profiting from cannabis, looks a little hollow when no action has, so far, been taken against Oakland’s Harborside Health Center whose $21m sales in 2009 made it larger than the three other licenced dispensaries combined.

If the belief grows that the Obama administration is attempting to interfere in a state election that will play to the Republican stance for states’ rights, though, paradoxically, Republican congressmen were critical of Holder’s ‘hands off’ approach. Politicians from both parties representing five states where medical marijuana is legal have sent an open letter to the Obama administration that, in summary' says 'Back off'.

As I say the medical marijuana situation is a mess and is another example of my view that the ins and outs of drug policy extend far wider into every aspect of politics and society.

Follow @thepoisongarden on Twitter

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