Fed crackdown sparks confusion in pot world

“Did anyone bring the beer?” quipped U.S. Attorney’s spokesman Thom Mrozek just before an Sacramento press conference on Oct. 7 announcing a major crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Inside the high-security room several stories up in a downtown Sacramento courthouse, the line garnered a few genuine chuckles. But among the two-dozen or so pro-medical marijuana protestors down on the street below, few people were in a joking mood.  

“They’re trying to fill up the prisons,” said Bryan Gallinger, a burly, shaved-headed former Marine and Desert Storm veteran.

Gallinger said he’s on permanent disability from his service – and has been in a long battle with Veterans Administration hospitals, who have tried to keep him off medical marijuana and on other drugs that debilitate him. He angrily pointed to the 28 police officers – he said he’d counted – keeping watch over the small group. His “tax dollars at work,” he added.   
Like many others at the protest, Gallinger said that he won’t support Barack Obama in 2012. Instead he’ll get behind Ron Paul, the candidate from the libertarian wing of the GOP and the only guy, Gallinger said, who would “make this all go away.” Congressman Paul, R-Texas, is carrying a measure with Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, that would greatly scale back the fed’s involvement in marijuana enforcement.

But no one believes this battle is going away anytime soon. Even as the feds announced a crackdown that some pot advocates say is beyond anything ever attempted by the Bush administration, public and professional opinion continues to trend the other way.

Which means that the current ambiguous, untenable situation – de facto legalization in the form of an ad hoc medical marijuana system – will give way to other ambiguous, untenable situations.

Ultimately, legalization of marijuana will almost certainly arrive, but it almost certainly will take several more years – maybe many more. So said Nate Silver – the former numbers cruncher now with the New York Times who became well-known for his polling analyses during the 2008 election season. In a widely-cited 2009 article, he traced polls back to 1969 and found an inexorable trend in favor of legalizing marijuana and predicted national legalization by 2023. Though he added, “This is probably not one of those issues, however, where Washington is liable to be on the vanguard.”

Local medical marijuana advocates have a word for this: “cannaphobia,” a form of paranoia that manifests itself most obviously in politicians not believing that legalization is as popular as it really is.

Silver also noted that the polls could change back the other way. But so far, they’re not. The latest nationwide Gallup Poll released Monday found that for the first time ever, more respondents favored legalization than opposed it, 50 percent to 46 percent.

In a post this week, he downplayed the numbers, saying an average of recent polls suggest the legalization still isn’t a majority position. But he also noted that the Gallup poll showed that among those 18 to 29, support stood at 62 percent – something he called “the wind at its back” for the legalization movement.

“If this current trend on legalizing marijuana continues, pressure may build to bring the nation’s laws into compliance with the people’s wishes,” wrote Gallup’s Frank Newport in introducing the findings.

Meanwhile, over the weekend, the California Medical Association (CMA) threw even more fuel on the fire. Even while questioning the value of medical marijuana, the group’s board adopted a pro-legalization stance, saying pot should be regulated like alcohol.

“CMA may be the first organization of its kind to take this position, but we won’t be the last,” said CMA president-elect James T. Hay in a statement.

All of which raises many questions. What will happen to medical dispensaries in California – or to those who supply them product, rent them retail space or sell them advertising?
And what effect will the crackdown have on a presidential election that might already be razor close? California is too much of a blue state for it to be in doubt. It also remains to be seen how much voters in other states are even paying attention to the California situation.

Eric Bauman, vice chair of the California Democratic Party, said that when Democratic base voters around the country actually confront the 2012 elections, pot won’t be on the agenda for most.

“When you look at what people are most worried about right now, it’s not marijuana,” Bauman said. “It’s jobs and the economy.”

But former San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan notes that many of the 15 other medical marijuana states are also swing states in presidential elections. This list includes a pair of Western states that Obama managed from flip from red to blue in 2008, Colorado and Nevada. Another key swing state, with 16 electoral votes in 2012, is Michigan – where a medical marijuana referendum outpolled Obama 63 percent to 57 percent in 2008.

“What’s in it for Obama?” Hallinan asked. “That’s his base of support. I can’t believe he really is doing this. Even in California, it will hurt him moneywise. A lot of the people who supported him are now going, ‘What’s going on here?’”

Hallinan and his son Brendan have a law firm that represents well over a dozen medical marijuana dispensaries. The elder Hallinan dismissed the notion that Obama is harder on dispensaries than Bush. So far, at least, Obama’s Justice Department isn’t raiding pot clubs.

But Bush never came in with a record of calling the war on drugs “an utter failure” and saying criminal prosecutions of marijuana should be scaled back, as then Illinois state senator Obama did in 2004. Hallinan noted that Obama’s base – liberal and younger voters – are generally more supportive loosening pot policies. Among the voters who like the stronger stance on pot, he said, there’s sure to be a stronger anti-pot option available on the GOP side.

Of course, Hallinan himself lost a race where pot played a role. In 2003, Kamala Harris pulled away from him late in the race that year and denied him a third term as SF DA – after she vocally threw her support behind medical marijuana.

It’s a disconnect with his base that has plagued Obama from the beginning. Scores of news outlets have reported that a petition to legalize marijuana has been dominating the White House’s “We the People” website, where people can suggest ideas for changes in the law. What generally wasn’t noted in these stories is that pot legalization has basically been the top item on that list from the moment the Obama administration launched the website in early 2009, a fact that was heavily-covered at the time.

But marijuana legalization advocates have not chosen to go back to the ballot in 2012 – and not just because they lost by seven points with Proposition 19 in 2008. According to one of the record sources, advocates conducted a large unreleased poll this year, then backed away from another campaign when they saw the results.

The reason: While men keep moving more and more towards legalization, the poll showed support among women remains stalled. This included a sizable number of mothers who have or even continue to smoke pot, but want it to remain illegal in order to make it harder for their kids to get. This matches something Silver noted in a post last November – that people’s support of l
egalization drops when they have kids.

Then there’s the matter of economics. One of the most-talked about aspects of this crackdown is the focus on people who do business with dispensaries, such as landlords and publications that run ads. Hallinan noted that putting pressure on landlords also happened under Bush.

The crackdown on weekly entertainment papers – some of whom have essentially been kept alive by dispensary ads – is new. The four U.S. Attorneys at press conference appeared to place a different priority on this aspect. Laura Duffy, based in San Diego, indicated she was likely to take action against publishers. Benjamin Wagner, based in Sacramento, said it wouldn’t be “a focus.”

But this didn’t stop many small papers around the state from losing a quarter to one-half of their advertising revenue essentially overnight, according to numerous published reports.
Others have noted one interesting aspect of the crackdown: it happened at the height of the outdoor growers’ harvest season.

Part of the justification for the crackdown was that pot intended for dispensaries was finding its way onto the black market in other states. There has been speculation that the Justice Department effort will result in pot meant for dispensaries now glutting the black market.

This may still be the case, said Dale Gieringer, California director for the National Campaign to Reform Marijuana Laws. But he said a lot of that outdoor pot was already headed onto the black market and out of state.

“I don’t think that that has much impact,” Gieringer said. “The outdoor harvest doesn’t mean as much as it used to. Dispensaries tend to be reliant on indoor grown. The outdoor crop tends to go more to the non-medical market.”

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