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You Tell Us: Questioning the medical marijuana crackdown in California

on April 23, 2012

In early April, the Drug Enforcement Agency and Internal Revenue Service raided Oaksterdam, a medical marijuana trade school in Oakland, California. The DEA said the raid was part of an ongoing criminal investigation. According to San Francisco DEA spokeswoman Jocelyn Barnes, the reason for the raid was “[m]arijuana continues to be a federally controlled substance, despite the fact that California voted to make medical marijuana legal.”

The raid on Oaksterdam is part of the federal government’s larger effort to shut down California’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry, which experts estimate is worth $1.7 billion annually. As part of this multi-agency crackdown, the DEA is raiding medical marijuana providers who are fully compliant with state and local law. In addition, the IRS is taxing providers to death by auditing them at an unprecedented rate, as well as enforcing an arcane tax policy the federal authorities claim prohibits providers from claiming standard business deductions available to all other businesses. Even the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has weighed in on the issue, prohibiting gun dealers from selling firearms to medical marijuana patients who have registered their qualified patient status with the state.

Indeed, the mere spectre of federal enforcement has had a tremendous impact on stifling the industry.  Landlords and banks have abandoned their relationships with medical marijuana providers.  Local governments, including historically pro-marijuana Mendocino County, have ended their long-standing permit programs. Even the City of Oakland, one of the municipalities which pioneered the idea of regulating medical marijuana, has slowed down its plan to issue permits for industrial sized marijuana grows due to threats of prosecution from United States Attorney Melinda Haag.

Yet, amidst this unprecedented crackdown, the federal government has remained surprisingly lax about the medical marijuana cultivation going on in its own backyard. Two weeks ago, the District of Columbia issued the first six permits for large-scale marijuana cultivation projects in the nation’s capital. The Washington D.C. permit program, which was enacted two years ago, provides for up to 10 medical marijuana cultivation centers that will supply medical marijuana to five distribution centers where patients can obtain their medicine.  Though it is not receiving the same level of attention from the Department of Justice, the Washington D.C. program is quite similar to the Oakland model that Haag has alleged unlawfully “authorizes conduct contrary to federal law.”

It is unclear what is driving this disparate enforcement.  The critical difference between Oakland and Washington D.C. could be the role of Congress played in passing the law.  Under the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973, Congress is required to review all legislation passed by the Council of the District of Columbia before it can become law. In allowing the Washington D.C. permit program to stand, the federal government has implicitly approved the authorization and regulation of medical marijuana, demonstrating a notable shift in the Legislature’s attitude. While the Washington D.C. permits are certainly a reason for providers and supporters to cheer, at the same time, they also make the current crackdown in California all the more confusing and to some, frustrating.

It is hard to rectify the federal government’s schizophrenic position on medical marijuana.  On one hand, the federal government is in the middle of a multi-agency crackdown against the entire industry.  On the other, due to its role in approving the law under the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973, Congress has gone beyond mere decriminalization and has outright approved the issuance of permits to cultivate medical marijuana in violation of federal law.  In addition, the District of Columbia has implemented its medical marijuana permit program without resistance from the Department of Justice. The federal government’s disparate enforcement has supporters vocally arguing that “as D.C. goes, so should the nation,” meaning the federal government should scale back its enforcement efforts in California due to Congressional approval on the Washington D.C. permit program.

Going forward, raids on places like Oaksterdam will likely continue, but it is unclear for how much longer they will be tolerated by the public.  The raid on Oaksterdam was met with a great deal of public resistance, and it is not just providers and patients who are upset; public support for marijuana legalization has never been higher, especially for medical marijuana. According to a recent Gallup poll, 50 percent of Americans now say that marijuana should be legal, and 70 percent support the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

With voter initiatives for legalizing marijuana on the ballot in Colorado and Washington it appears that an even greater clash between public opinion and federal policy is inevitable.  It begs the question of how much longer is the public going to tolerate these raids that are contrary to the will of the voters and the public’s opinion on medicinal cannabis.  Until the federal government rectifies its enforcement policy with public opinion, its continued enforcement efforts in California will come off as misguided, hypocritical, and out of touch with public opinion.  The message sent to the American public will be: “do as I say, not as I do.”  Stated another way, it will be “business as usual” for the federal government.

Aaron Lachant is a senior attorney with law firm Fenton Nelson, which represents healthcare providers and is based in Los Angeles. His company bio is available here.


You Tell Us is Oakland North’s community Op-Ed page, featuring opinion pieces submitted by readers on Oakland-related topics. Have something to say? Send essays of 500-1,000 words to We’d love to hear from you!

All essays reflect the opinions of their authors, and not of the Oakland North staff or the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Oakland North reserves the right to edit submissions for length, clarity and spelling/grammar. Oakland North does not pay for the the publication of opinion pieces. You Tell Us submissions must be written in civil and non-offensive language. We do not publish hate speech, libelous material, unsubstantiated allegations or rumors, or personal attacks on individuals or groups.


  1. […] Read the rest of the op-ed by attorney Aaron Lachant at Oakland North. […]

  2. […] Read the rest of the op-ed by attorney Aaron Lachant at Oakland North. […]

  3. fishfry on April 23, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Why are Kamala Harris and other local pols silent? If the public strongly opposes the raids, why do our local elected representatives implicitly support the raids with their silence?

  4. Debbi Bianchi on April 24, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I am a medical marijuana patient, and I think if the feds would stick to taking care of our president and his secret service mess and leave us otherwise “law-abiding” people alone the world would be a better place. I mean really, the secret service won’t even pay their hookers full price… how illegal and immoral on so many levels is that?

    • imominous on May 2, 2012 at 8:38 am

      Dear Debbi,

      Hi, we represent Big Pharma. You are not being a Good American Consumer by relying on a plant that can be grown by just about anyone instead of our heavily researched, deeply overpriced lab-created drugs.

      We want your money! Drop the bong and step away from the baggie…

  5. kevin on April 24, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    I don’t live in CA nor do I live in a state that has approved medical marijuana, but I am disturbed by these raids. Obama had said he wasn’t going to pursue medical marijuana and he would leave it up to the states to decide, this was in fact a lie. I was planning on voting for Obama this election, however as we have all witnessed Obama’s agenda change, my vote has changed as well.

    • None on June 12, 2012 at 1:04 am

      I support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, but honestly, Oakland is the last place on earth that should be doing this. Oakland can’t keep track of programs that are federally legal, and the pot business is so sketchy here it’s just as well if it ends. Literally anyone can get a weed card for $100 with the flimsiest diagnosis (insomnia?), and they do share with their friends. I have a legal scrip for ritalin, and if I start passing them out, I rightfully get into big trouble, as does my doctor. Oaksterdam is pocket lining bs.

  6. eddieVroom on April 24, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    What’s that old saying? First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. Hang in there, guys.

    • None on June 12, 2012 at 1:05 am

      Oh right, occupy Oakland kept spouting that one last year. It’s going great for them, too.

    • None on June 12, 2012 at 1:05 am

      And it’s not an “old saying”. It’s a quote from Ghandi. You’re a dunce.

  7. Mr Freely on April 25, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    There was a drug war conference in South America a couple of months ago. The conference placed the blame for the drug war squarely on the shoulders of the American citizen and they pointed to places like Oaksterdam University to illustrate how lax the drug laws are enforced by the Federal Government. Apparently the notion of states rights is a non issue in South America.

    • imominous on May 2, 2012 at 8:46 am

      I hate it when ignorant authorities lump cannabis in with crap like cocaine and heroin.

      Those two are derived from plants, but in that laboratory form have been made into something deadly.

      Coca and opium have been used for centuries. Run that junk through a lab, make it stronger, it becomes dangerous.

      Yet cannabis, that noble weed, needs no such enhancements. It helps depression, appetite, insomnia and other ailments just as god made it.

      Cannabis should not be considered under the same category as lab-produced drugs.

      • None on June 12, 2012 at 1:08 am

        You two are both idiots, though I see that the one idiot either didn’t read or didn’t understand what the other idiot actually wrote before replying, though it is also garbage.

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