Obama: gay OK, pot not

Pub date May 15, 2012


HERBWISE President Barack Obama made big news last week when he became the first U.S. president to state his support for same-sex marriage, taking a states’ rights position on the issue and telling supporters “where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.” So why is his administration so aggressively going after medical marijuana providers that are fully compliant with state law?

As a presidential candidate, Obama said that his administration wouldn’t go after medical marijuana patients or suppliers that were in compliance with the laws in the 19 states where medical marijuana is legal or decriminalized, a position that his Department of Justice reinforced with a 2009 memo restating that position.

But then last year, the administration reversed course and began a multi-agency attack on the medical marijuana industry in California and other states, with the Drug Enforcement Administration raiding growers, dispensaries, and even Oaksterdam University; the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices threatening owners of properties involved in medical marijuana with asset seizure; and the Internal Revenue Service adopting punitive policies aimed at shutting down dispensaries that are otherwise paying taxes and operating legally under state law.

Recently, Obama tried to explain his evolving stance on medical marijuana in a Rolling Stone interview: “What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana — and the reason is, because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law.”

Yet statements like that only reinforce the idea that Obama has a double standard. After all, same-sex marriage is also against federal law, specifically the Defense of Marriage Act that President Bill Clinton signed in 1996. The Obama Administration last year refused to continue defending DOMA in the courts, whereas it has proactively and aggressively expanded enforcement of federal laws against pot.

When I asked Obama’s Press Office to address the contradiction, they referred to the Rolling Stone interview, provided a transcript of a press briefing from last week, and refused further comment.

Press Secretary Jay Carney spent much of that briefing discussing Obama’s “evolving” position on same-sex marriage, and said the president has always been supporter of states’ rights. “He vehemently disagrees with those who would act to deny Americans’ rights or act to take away rights that have been established in states. And that has been his position for quite a long time,” Carney said.

Assembly member Tom Ammiano, who has sponsored legislation to improve protections for those in the medical marijuana industry and criticized Obama’s crackdown on cannabis, said he was happy to hear Obama’s new stance on same-sex marriage. But he said that position of federal non-intervention in state and local jurisdictions isn’t being following with medical marijuana, or on immigration issues, where the federal government has circumvented local sanctuary city policies with its Secure Communities program targeting undocumented immigrants.

“Good move, Mr. President, now let’s work on that states rights issue,” Ammiano told us. “I don’t want to water down the significance of this, but I do want to treat it holistically.”

Ammiano praised House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for her May 3 public statement criticizing the federal raids on medical marijuana patients and suppliers, but he said federal leaders should act to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 narcotics, a classification of dangerous drugs with no medical value.

“Pelosi was good to put that statement out, but now we need the next step of changing federal law,” Ammiano said.

David Goldman, a representative of Americans for Safe Access patient advocacy group who serves on the city’s Medical Cannabis Task Force, called Obama’s double-standard hypocritical: “If Obama is affirming federalism and states rights, then he’s inconsistent with state-regulated medical marijuana.”

But Goldman also said, “Why should we be surprised that politicians take contradictory positions on issues?”