The increased enforcement efforts to regulate the medical marijuana industry did not come on orders from the Justice Department in Washington, said U.S. Attorney for California’s Eastern District Benjamin Wagner this week.
“The response by U.S. Attorneys in California and in other medical marijuana states has been prompted by our analysis of the situation in those states vis-a-vis federal law,” Wagner said during an online live chat with the Sacramento Bee this week. ”The situation in different states is different, and we have tailored our enforcement strategies to the situation in each district.”
The enforcement of medical marijuana laws on the federal level is only a “very small” part of what U.S. Attorneys offices do, he said.
“On the federal level, we tend to prosecute only more serious crimes, including significant economic crimes that have devastating effects on victims,” Wagner said. “We also prosecute narcotics crimes of various sorts, but our emphasis is on more serious organized crime-based drug prosecutions.”
The federal government’s offense on marijuana dispensaries and growers has created chaos in the industry, the New York Times reports. Some California citizens and elected officials are frustrated, saying the indiscriminate raiding of dispensaries compromises eligible citizens’ ability to use medical marijuana, the report states. The questions come after President Barack Obama said in 2008 on the campaign trail that he would not use Justice Department resources to “circumvent state [medical marijuana] laws.”
In 2009 then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden said it was a waste of Justice Department resources to pursue individuals involved in the medical marijuana industry if they acted in accordance with state laws. In June 2011, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memo seemingly reversing the department’s hands-off stance on the industry, but department officials said that is an incorrect interpretation of Cole’s statement. After issuing the memo, Wagner answered questions about the department’s apparent about-face.
Wagner told the San Francisco Chronicle that ”conditions on the ground” had changed between 2009 and 2011 — not Justice Department policy.
“It wasn’t a lack of good faith on our part,” he said. “We were alarmed by explosive growth of these large commercial operations. These huge dispensaries are focused on profits, not helping sick people.”
During the live chat this week, Wagner called the industry an “unregulated free-for-all” and said activity by some shops and cultivation centers clearly violated federal law.
“My duty is to enforce federal law,” he asserted. “My focus has been on the money-makers, not the patients.”
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have enacted state laws allowing the use and sale of medical marijuana.
Wagner’s comments this week echo Attorney General Eric Holder’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last month. Holder rebutted claims the federal government was circumventing states’ authority by cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation centers.
“We’re not going to use limited resources that we have to after people who are acting in conformity with state law,” he said.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked why the department had such an “extensive” focus on investigating and punishing those who legally grow marijuana. Holder called Nadler’s questions “inconsistent with a little thing called the facts.”