Medical marijuana suppliers complain that the Justice Department
is tightening the federal government's approach to enforcement.
That's a disingenuous response to the department's latest directive
that medical marijuana is not a business - though suppliers sure
want it to be.
Medical marijuana advocacy groups are howling that a new memo
from the Justice Department on medical marijuana enforcement
represents a major and unfair policy shift. But they are being
The June 29 memo largely reaffirms one from October 2009 - known
as the "Ogden" memo. If, after the authorities said, "Don't do 'X,'
" as they did in Ogden, but people continued to do "X" with a nod
and a wink, then they now have no right to complain when the
authorities remind them that they could be prosecuted.
What exactly is the "X" that they are not supposed to do?
It is making a living by supplying marijuana to large numbers of
healthy, recreational users who meet the letter of state medical
marijuana laws, but not their spirit - which is to provide
compassionate recourse to people with serious diseases.
Both memos advise US attorneys that individual marijuana users
with serious illnesses - and their caregivers - are not an
enforcement priority, but those in the business of cultivating,
selling, or distributing marijuana are.
Whether people ought to be legally treated with marijuana for
cancer, AIDS, or certain other illnesses is a separate matter,
worthy of its own debate but not one I will take up here. The
majority of the American public say the answer is "yes"; the Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA) says "no," most recently in a June
21 letter denying a request to reclassify marijuana to allow medical
Letter versus spirit of state laws
The DEA's view that marijuana has no currently accepted medical
use and has a high potential for abuse will likely be appealed
through the courts. In the meantime, the Obama administration's
position is not to interfere with medical marijuana growth and use
that comply with the letter and spirit of state and local laws.
The problem comes when the letter of the law is inconsistent with
the spirit. Many - though not all - of the 16 state medical
marijuana statutes (plus the District of Columbia) make it easy for
recreational users to obtain medical recommendations.
Whether those loopholes came from good-faith but incompetent
efforts to implement a responsible system, or whether they
deliberately exploited medical marijuana to achieve de facto
legalization, can be known only to those who wrote the laws. It is
clear, though, that such laws often allow far more than the public
realizes or the Justice Department will tolerate.
For instance, the demographics of California medical marijuana
users - mostly young, healthy males with long histories of marijuana
use - resemble those of recreational marijuana users, not of people
receiving traditional health-care services. In one study of 4,117
individuals, the typical person seeking medical marijuana was a 32-
year-old male who started using marijuana as a teenager.
A similar study obtained data from medical charts and physician
interviews for 1,655 consecutive applicants. Fewer than 5 percent
were diagnosed with the diseases that motivate voters to support
medical marijuana programs (HIV/AIDS, cancer, or glaucoma).
Applicants most commonly reported seeking marijuana to relieve pain,
improve sleep, or relax. Yet because California allows medical
marijuana for any "illness for which marijuana provides relief," the
denial rate was less than 2 percent.
It is hard to move beyond anecdotes in California because the
state does not require patients to register. Montana is more
instructive. Until recently, when Senate Bill 423 dramatically
revised the state's 2004 Medical Marijuana Act, Montana had both a
mandatory registry and lax criteria for determining who was