From the OC to Oaktown, Drug War Opposition Builds

The times they are a-changin’. This week, a Republican congressman from Orange County, California, joined Oakland medical marijuana dispenser Steve DeAngelo to urge President Barack Obama, a Democrat who started out as a critic of the war on drugs, to curb his Department of Justice. They want Obama to make his prosecutors stop trying to shut down honest marijuana establishments in states that have legalized medical marijuana. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and the left-leaning DeAngelo have found common cause in calling out one area in which the federal government can and should do less.

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They’ve got the law on their side. For a decade, Rohrabacher and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., pushed for legislation to prohibit the Department of Justice from using federal funds to go after medical cannabis operations in states that have legalized them. California was the first state in the nation to do so, in 1996.

At first, that bipartisan effort failed spectacularly. But as the number of states that had legalized medical marijuana approached 32, the political calculus changed. In May, the House passed the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment by a 219-189 vote to prohibit the use of federal funds to block state-authorized medical cannabis.

Congressional leaders included the amendment in the $1.1 trillion “cromnibus” bill, which the president signed in December. Now Congress and the White House are on the record opposing federal prosecutions against marijuana operations in states that sanction them.

“The intent of Congress was pretty clear,” Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell noted. California voters also sent an unmistakable message that they want the feds “to knock it off. It’s a waste of taxpayer resources.”

Yet U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag has refused to pull back a 2012 lawsuit designed to shutter DeAngelo’s Harborside Health Center by seizing the assets of the facility, which serves 108,000 patients. This month, Haag’s office went to court to push the effort in spite of the new law. “Why have you picked this fight?” a federal judge asked. Rohrabacher, Farr and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., signed a joint statement telling the administration they believe that the Department of Justice “is not acting within the spirit or the letter of the law.” The feds have gone so far that three members of Congress are standing up for the pot guy.

On the phone, Rohrabacher admitted that his amendment lacks teeth. There’s no criminal penalty for prosecutors who go rogue. The former Ronald Reagan speechwriter argued that federal enforcement of marijuana laws represents “a huge waste of limited law enforcement resources to prevent people from smoking weed in their backyard.” Yes, Rohrabacher supports legalizing marijuana for recreational use, as well.

How did he sell 48 other Republicans on the bill? Rohrabacher pushed the states’ rights angle pursuant to the 10th Amendment. But also, “Republicans are supposed to believe in limited government and individual responsibility and especially a doctor-patient relationship,” quoth Rohrabacher, “and I convinced my fellow Republicans to stick by their principles.”

Rohrabacher also has a strong civil libertarian streak. On his blog last month, the congressman hit civil asset forfeiture as “among the most disturbing, even tyrannical, federal programs of the last decades.” The practice “means officers of the law can confiscate a private citizen’s property — cash, bank accounts, a car, a boat, a house, whatever — and not return it even if the citizen is innocent of any crime. Conceived as a major weapon in the misbegotten drug war, the practice has done little if anything to eliminate dangerous drugs from society. Rather, it has taken deadly aim at the rights and liberties of ordinary Americans, and it has proven especially harsh on the poorest Americans. It has deeply corrupted too many of our police forces, taking their eyes off best practices and incentivizing them to seize property against the clear meaning of our Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.”

Rohrabacher posted that after Attorney General Eric Holder announced his department would end the “equitable sharing” program that partnered state and local law enforcement with federal law enforcement and allowed locals to share as much as 80 percent of seized assets. “I strongly sense that Mr. Holder understands this diabolical, prohibition-created relationship,” Rohrabacher posited, “and urge him, consulting his better angels, to work toward removing marijuana from Schedule I and reschedule it at a more appropriate level, or remove it from the scheduling framework altogether. I also predict that a good many of my fellow Republicans, silent now, will applaud his removing this incubus from our lives.”

“Incubus”? That’s strong language — yet appropriate when you consider the means the U.S. attorney is using to go after Harborside. Haag hasn’t charged DeAngelo with breaking federal drug laws. There are no criminal charges. She instead has gone after Harborside’s assets. Actually, her office leaned on DeAngelo’s landlord to run him out of a property for which he has been paying rent since 2006. Rather than go after the marijuana operation alone, the feds set their sights on a third party. The federal government has all the power, and still it seeks to get private citizens to do its dirty work.

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected]

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