By Ryan Grim and Ryan J. Reilly
The Huffington Post
OAKLAND, Calif. — In the summer of 2007, the owners of Harborside Health Center, then and now the most prominent medical marijuana dispensary in the U.S., were reflecting on their rapid rise. Steve DeAngelo had opened the center with his business partner in October 2006, on a day when federal agents raided three other clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area. “We had to decide in that moment whether or not we were really serious about this and whether we were willing to risk arrest for it,” DeAngelo said. “And we decided we were going to open our doors. And we did, and we haven’t looked back since. The only way I’ll stop doing what I’m doing is if they drag me away in chains. And as soon as they let me out, I’ll be back doing it again.”
DeAngelo, looking at his desktop computer during an interview that summer, threw his hands up and shouted, “Yes!” Hillary Clinton, campaigning for president in New Hampshire, had just told a video-camera-wielding marijuana-policy activist that, if elected, she would end federal raids on pot clubs in California. That meant that all three leading Democratic candidates — including the ultimate winner — had vowed as president to leave DeAngelo and his business alone. Within a year of opening, the shop was bringing in $1 million a month in sales.
President Barack Obama made good on his campaign promise shortly after taking office. “What the president said during the campaign, you’ll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we’ll be doing in law enforcement,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in March 2009. “What he said during the campaign is now American policy.”
In October, the Department of Justice followed up with what became known as the “Ogden memo” — a missive from Deputy Attorney General David Ogden telling federal law enforcers that they should not focus federal resources “on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”
Steph Sherer, the head of Americans for Safe Access, a California-based medical marijuana group, was thrilled when she saw the Ogden memo. The group quickly put out a press release touting it.
“We were so beside ourselves in so many ways that we were finally recognized by a government agency, that our press release was victorious,” Sherer said. “What our nuance was, we said, ‘Great, we have an administration that will have a dialogue with us, this is a major step forward.'”
Some members of the medical marijuana industry, however, took a less nuanced view. “Instead, the reaction [from cannabis industry people] was, ‘OK, we’re all in the clear, it’s time to expand our businesses and bring in outside investors,'” Sherer said.
Encouraged by the Ogden memo and DeAngelo’s public assertions of his million-dollar monthly revenue, medical pot shops flooded Montana, Washington, and other states. Legislatures in 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, have now approved marijuana for medical purposes. Twelve, including DC, have laws allowing dispensaries. Local officials in California’s Mendocino County and in towns like Chico moved forward with plans to regulate medical marijuana as well. Before 2009, there were roughly 1,000 pot shops across the country. Today, there are 2,000 to 2,500, according to Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access.
“Nobody can argue that the number of medical marijuana shops in California and Colorado didn’t grow at an exponential rate directly because of this” Ogden memo, said a former senior White House official who worked on drug policy and, like other former and current members of the Obama administration, requested anonymity in order to speak about internal debates.
The Ogden memo, however, was not the beginning of the end of the war on pot. Instead, it kicked off a new battle that still rages. Since the memo, the Department of Justice has cracked down hard on medical marijuana, raiding hundreds of dispensaries, while the IRS and other federal law enforcement officials have gone after banks and landlords who do business with them. Fours years after promising not to make medical marijuana a priority, the government continues to target it aggressively.
The war has played out not just between federal authorities and the pot industry, but between competing factions within the federal government, as well as between local and state officials and the more aggressive federal prosecutors and drug warriors. As officials in Washington fought over whether and how to continue the war on pot, U.S. attorneys in the states helped beat back local efforts to regulate the medical marijuana industry, going so far as to threaten elected officials with jail. The willingness of elements within the Department of Justice, including its top prosecutors, to use their power in brazenly political ways is, in many ways, the untold story of Obama’s first-term approach to drug policy.
If you’d like to discuss medical marijuana, contact Ryan Hurley, director of the Rose Law Group Medical Marijuana Dept., email@example.com