Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Martin Lee: Medical marijuana raids to appease "Fast and Furious" critics

According to the excerpt from acclaimed drug historian Martin Lee's latest book, Smoke Signals, published in TruthOut, he argues that the 2011-2012 campaign against California medical marijuana dispensaries was designed to deflect partisan political criticism of Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice for the blunders of the "Fast and Furious" BATF undercover operation. "Fast and Furious" was intended to discover how the Mexican drug cartels were acquiring high-powered American firearms. But the guns "walked" (BATF lost track of a couple thousand of them), the weapons ended up in the hands of the criminals and a several were used to shoot or kill U.S. law enforcement agents.

The GOP-controlled House Government Reform Committee, having an opportunity to be outraged at BATF, a unit of the Justice Department, demanded to know what Holder knew about the raids. He stonewalled. Some Members of Congress have sought his resignation, and the House of Representatives has voted him to be in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with the Committee's subpoena. It is a big political embarrassment for the Administration.

But Lee's “explanation” does not hold water. It is an interesting hypothesis unsupported by any facts or analysis of the context and history.

Aside from the complete lack of evidence in Lee's explanation, the ostensible political rationale does not make any sense. There is no evidence that the Representatives “gunning” for Holder and Obama regarding Fast and Furious were especially outspoken critics of medical marijuana to the degree that their ire with law enforcement incompetence in the Fast and Furious case might be mollified by a concerted enforcement effort against medical marijuana.

The premise is flawed. Anyone who has followed the 40-year history of the hatred of the NRA, and its congressional allies, for the BATF knows that nothing is going to substitute for an attack on BATF. I was in the middle of this hatred starting in March 1981 when President Reagan was shot, until I left Capitol Hill in 1989. I set up at least a dozen hearings on some aspect of gun control in that time. I handled the House consideration of the NRA's "wet dream" (the Firearms Owners Protection of Act of 1986), the "cop killer bullet" legislation, the undetectable plastic handgun imbroglio, and development of the "Brady Bill" that we got out of the Judiciary Committee in 1988. (Speaker Tom Foley kept the bill from going to the House floor). For comparison, the loathing for BATF on the part of scores of Members of Congress is probably greater than the loathing of the Pentagon felt by many liberals during the depths of the Vietnam War.

Simply consider how a political/enforcement shell game, such as the one Lee suggests motivated the medical marijuana policy change from the 2009 Ogden memorandum, would be executed. There is no evidence, for example, that Administration critics were given private briefings immediately in advance or after medical marijuana raids or enforcement initiatives, such as sending forfeiture-threatening letters to landlords or notices to banks. In the kind of campaign Lee imagines, this would be a prototypical step to give the critics politically useful opportunity to make a timely or newsworthy condemnation of the “evil” of medical marijuana. That is the kind of special political consideration that would be used to curry favor on Capitol Hill that Lee imagines. In addition, there is no evidence that the raids were targeted in the districts of Holder’s critics to especially appease them.

In fact, given that the critics were pro-gun, the BATF letter to all Federal firearms licensees stating, if licensed gun sellers have knowledge that a prospective gun buyer is a legal state medical marijuana patient they are in violation of the Gun Control Act prohibition on sales of guns to known illegal drug users, made no sense. It created political outrage in the Mountain West where almost everyone owns a firearm. That letter could not have been part of an effort to use medical marijuana enforcement to mollify Administration critics of BATF as Lee asserts.

Fundamentally, the medical marijuana raids themselves were not as Lee says, “an all-out vendetta.” They were, to a shocking degree, so ad hoc, unfocused, uncoordinated and poorly announced to the press and public that it is inconceivable that anyone in the Administration believed these raids could be held up as an exemplar of DoJ law enforcement competence and vigor. If anything, the discombobulated character of the DoJ attack on medical marijuana operations invited further attack upon the Obama administration by its enemies as further evidence of law enforcement incompetence.

While the attacks have shuttered hundreds of dispensaries, including numerous first class operations, and have devastated many friends of drug policy reform, objectively, as a concerted law enforcement initiative – especially one designed for a political purpose -- it has been a shockingly incoherent mess. A better analogy of how DoJ has gone after medical marijuana is that of unconnected guerrilla operations, with units striking here and there with the hope of disheartening a much stronger enemy, but not substantially changing the political reality or the balance of power.

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