Justice

Surgeon General Admits Health Benefits of Marijuana, But Feds Are Still Cracking Down

Earlier this week, the Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, kneeled to sensible science. 

On Wednesday, Murthy revealed to CBS News some shocking news: "we have some preliminary [emphasis added] data showing that for certain medical conditions and symptoms, that marijuana can be helpful," adding, "we have to use that data to drive policy-making." 

The move was indisputably an important one, sending the Surgeon General upstream against a sea of politicians who hold fast to decrying the drug with Reefer Madness rhetoric. Even the Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch has suggested, despite what should be credible evidence to the contrary, that alcohol is a safer inebriate. But although the Surgeon General should hold some clout around the Capitol, the feds are still tangled up in trying to police states' medical marijuana dispensaries. 

Last Tuesday, lawyers for U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag appeared in court to continue their fight to shut down the Oakland, California-based Harborside Health Center, a $25-million-per-year marijuana dispensary considered to be one of the biggest in the country. In 2012, arguing that it had become too large, Haag moved to shut Harborside down, but lawyers with the City of Oakland argued back that it was a community asset whose closure would create a public-health crisis. The case is currently being heard in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

If you haven't been paying attention, this news shouldn't be a surprise; even though 23 states have laws legalizing medical marijuana, federal agencies have eschewed those formalities in the interest of fighting an antiquated war on drugs. 

But when the Senate approved the $1.1 trillion federal spending bill last December to keep the government running through next summer, they approved a stipulation that barred the Department of Justice from spending any money to prosecute medical marijuana patients or dispensaries operating legally under state laws ––effectively ending the federal war on medical marijuana.  

According to a statement from California Rep. Sam Farr, “patients will have access to the care legal in their state without fear of federal prosecution,” the Democrat who supported the rider said. “And our federal dollars will be spent more wisely on fighting actual crimes and not wasted going after patients.” 

Although the Justice Department pledged not to interfere with the implementation of state laws pertaining to medical marijuana last year, the reality has been anything but for dispensary owners who have lived in constant fear of federal agent raids and other targeting by federal agencies like the IRS. But the spending bill provision, activists hoped, would put a stop to all of that. Individuals already prosecuted, like the Kettle Falls Five, an Eastern Washington family facing a minimum of ten years for growing too many marijuana plants, also are eligible for relief.

The amendment was a big win for all the benefactors of medical marijuana, from store owners down to patients. It even appealed to Republicans’ states’ rights interests. But it apparently wasn't enough to put a total halt on some federal operations. 

It's unclear what the future will look like, especially as Lynch's confirmation seems at least somewhat likely. "I can tell you that not only do I not support the legalization of marijuana, it is not the position of the Department of Justice currently to support the legalization," Lynch said recently. "Nor would it be the position should I become confirmed as attorney general."

But in the face of Haag's continued fight, Tamar Todd, director of marijuana policy and law for Drug Policy Alliance made some comforting observations. "There's no question that Harborside is well-regulated, compliant and an industry leader," he told the Huffington Post. He also added that Haag's attorneys could not answer repeated questions from judges as to "why they're fighting a city that clearly wants this business to operate here."