Locals react to President Obama’s pot comments; marijuana legal landscape still hazy after legalization in two states

Grant Scott-Goforth


President Barack Obama says he won’t go after pot users in Colorado and Washington, two states that just legalized the drug for recreational use. But advocates ar¬gue the president said the same thing about medical marijuana - and yet U.S. attor¬neys continue to force the closure of dispensaries across the U.S.

Earlier this month, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unanimously extended a moratorium on new medical marijuana dis¬pensaries for a second time since December 2011, after the federal govern¬ment began threatening local govern¬ments - includ¬ing the cities of Eureka and Arcata - with legal action for having ma¬rijuana-related ordinances.

Federal prosecutors insinu¬ated that elected officials and government employees could face legal action, and the county decided that pressure was enough to suspend its ordinance that issued dispen¬sary permits.

"They’re not idle threats." Deputy Counsel Davina Smith told the supervisors on Dec. 4, explaining the coun¬sel’s recommendation of the extension. She said a vague legal landscape continues to cloud the dispensary issue.

A slew of marijuana and dispensary court cases are pending in California, most awaiting precedent from two cases under review by the state Supreme Court.

Much of the legal scrutiny involves dispute over whether state laws preempt local laws in regulating dispensaries.

Welcome to the confusing and often conflicting policy on pot in the U.S., where medical marijuana is legal in many states, but it is increas¬ingly difficult to grow, distribute or sell it.

And at the federal level, at least officially, it is still an ille¬gal drug everywhere.

Obama’s statement last Friday provided little clarity in a world where marijuana is inching ever so carefully toward legitimacy.

In an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, he said that federal authorities have "big¬ger fish to fry" when it comes to targeting recreational pot smokers in Colorado and Washington.

Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said the feder¬al pressure interferes with the ability of local governments to reduce harm by regulating dispensaries.

"I would welcome any movement from the feds that would allow state and local government to regulate mari¬juana," he said. "Even better would be to see not just a hands-off approach, but ... a cooperative approach."

Lovelace said he had heard talk that the recent presiden¬tial election might spur some changes in the federal stance on marijuana, but that remains to be seen.

"A statement to Barbara Walters is far from substan¬tive policy," Lovelace said.

The marijuana regulation conflict is perhaps the great¬est in California, where the state’s four U.S. Attorneys criminally prosecuted large growers and launched a coor¬dinated crackdown on the state’s medical marijuana industry last year by threat¬ening landlords with proper¬ty forfeiture actions. Hun¬dreds of pot shops went out of business, and several in Humboldt County were forced to shut down.

Steve DeAngelo, executive director of an Oakland, Calif., dispensary that claims to be the nation’s largest, called for a federal policy that treats recreational and med¬ical uses of the drug equally.

"If we’re going to recognize the rights of recreational users, then we should cer¬tainly protect the rights of medical cannabis patients who legally access the medi¬cine their doctors have rec¬ommended," he said.

The government is plan¬ning to soon release policies for dealing with marijuana in Colorado and Washington, where federal law still pro¬hibits pot, as elsewhere in the country.

"It would be nice to get something concrete to follow," said William Osterhoudt, a San Francisco criminal de¬fense attorney representing government officials in Men¬docino County who recently received a demand from fed¬eral investigators for detailed information about a local sys¬tem for licensing growers of medical marijuana.

Some advocates said the statement showed the presi¬dent’s willingness to allow residents of states with mari¬juana laws to use the drug without fear of federal prosecution.

"It’s a tremendous step for¬ward," said Joe Elford, gener¬al counsel for Americans for Safe Access. "It suggests the feds are taking seriously enough the idea that there should be a carve-out for states with marijuana laws."

Obama’s statements on recreational use mirror the federal policy toward states that allow marijuana use for medical purposes.

"We are not focusing on backyard grows with small amounts of marijuana for use by seriously ill people," said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attor¬ney Benjamin Wagner in Sacramento. "We are target¬ing money-making commer¬cial growers and distributors who use the trappings of state law as cover, but they are actually abusing state law."

Alison Holcomb, who led the legalization drive in Washington state, said she doesn’t expect Obama’s com¬ment to prompt the federal government to treat recre¬ational marijuana and med¬ical marijuana differently.

"At this point, what the president is looking at is a response to marijuana in general. The federal govern¬ment has never recognized the difference between med¬ical and non-medical mari¬juana," she said."I don’t think this is the time he’d carve out separate policies. I think he’s looking for a more compre¬hensive response."

Colorado’s marijuana measure requires lawmakers to allow commercial pot sales, and a state task force that will begin writing those regulations meets Monday.

Former Humboldt Grow¬ers Association and Emerald Growers Association Execu¬tive Director Alison Sterling-Nichols said she appreciated the president’s statement, but was still skeptical.

"Honestly, he said that in ‘08 when he was running for president about medical marijuana," Sterling-Nichols said.

Sterling-Nichols referred to an interview in which Obama told the Mail Tri¬bune, "I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circum¬vent state laws on this issue."

Sterling-Nichols, whose background is in medical marijuana and environmen¬tal issues, said medical mari¬juana patients are facing diffi¬culty finding medicine in California under pressure from the Obama administra¬tion. She said Obama’s recent statement was no guarantee for marijuana users in Col¬orado and Washington.

"In my mind, anything’s possible," she said. "Obvious¬ly, states should be ready for repercussions."

Humboldt County attor¬ney and medical marijuana advocate Greg Allen agreed.

"The president has said similar things before, as I recall, and actually was being completely untruthful," Allen said. "One can hope he’s being sincere this time."

Allen said he supports Obama, and suspects the president realized that mari¬juana was a larger issue than he had expected when saying his administration would take a hands-off approach.

"He said it. It didn’t hap¬pen. He lied," Allen said.

Associated Press writers Paul Elias, Terry Collins in San Francisco and Manuel Valdes in Seattle contributed to this report.