Though medical marijuana is legal in the state of Oregon as well as 18 other states and the District of Columbia, it violates federal laws and the federal government does not recognize any of the state programs.
Marijuana was a part of the United States Pharmacopeia, a collection of all state-recognized drugs, until 1942, when it was removed and made illegal.
In 1996, after half a century of increasing marijuana use and support, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Since then, 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation to allow licensed patients to grow and smoke marijuana. Licenses must be approved and provided by doctors in all of these states.
The systems of getting patients marijuana vary from state to state, but in nearly every state there are medical marijuana dispensaries. They are not run by the state, but rather by small businesses that are state sanctioned. Though these dispensaries are legal by state law, they are still illegal federally, and the last fifteen years have shown that the government is willing to shut down dispensaries when they deem it necessary.
During Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, he pledged to put an end to the pattern of dispensary raids that developed during George W. Bush’s tenure. However, developments during his presidency have shown this is a promise he cannot fulfill.
In a recent interview on ABC News, President Obama said that the government has “bigger fish to fry” than prosecuting licensed medical marijuana users and growers. Despite that assertion, there has been in an increase in federal litigation in states that have legalized medical marijuana in the past year.
In March of 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA] conducted several raids at state-compliant dispensaries in Montana, and over a dozen people were indicted on federal charges. The sole defendant that went to trial, Chris Williams, was denied a defense and convicted on all charges. He accepted a post-conviction plea deal for five years in a federal prison.
More recently, many areas in California attempted to rid themselves of dispensaries and have sought the aid of the government, which the government has provided by shutting down some dispensaries and raiding others. Defendants in cases against the government cannot use compliance with state laws as a defense, though there have been bills put before Congress to change this. All of these bills, however, have been struck down.
However, some cities have fought to protect patients’ rights to use medical cannabis in places where it’s legal according to state law. After the DEA raided and shut down a dispensary in Oakland for allegedly overstepping the medical marijuana laws of the state, the city stopped them from closing a separate dispensary, Harborside Health Center, and filed a lawsuit against the federal government.
In response, City Attorney Barbara Parker sent out a statement that said, in part, “This lawsuit is about protecting the rights of legitimate medical patients.” The city wishes to keep the federal government from unlawful search and seizures in area dispensaries. The federal-state-city conflict was further complicated when a federal judge recently ruled that the landlord could not evict Harborside because the dispensary was in accordance with state law, although further litigation by the federal government is expected.
Dispensaries exist in Oregon too, though they are all nonprofits, unlike those in California. When the original bill to legalize medical marijuana was written, Oregon lawmakers knew that the DEA would only be able to go after big-time growers, purely because of a lack of manpower. Therefore, the original law outlines a system of personal relationships between single buyers and single growers.
In an interview with medical marijuana supporter Dr. Nancy Crumpacker, she described the reasons why the dispensaries that exist in Oregon are not technically dispensaries, but instead medical marijuana “clubs.”
The system is almost like a farmer’s market: when patients or growers have excess product that exceeds the state limit or their personal preference, they can bring it to these clubs and be reimbursed for it, and then the clubs can give it to other patients. The original law states that a licensed medical marijuana patient can give medical marijuana to another licensed medical marijuana patient. Therefore, the clubs system is just a roundabout way of one patient giving excess product to another patient, and is perfectly within the boundaries of the state law.
The social atmosphere of Oregon, and especially Portland, helps keeps these clubs in business. Though the Cannabis Tax Act (which attempted to fully legalize marijuana) was struck down in November, medical marijuana still has support among Oregonians, which was shown by the medical marijuana bill’s passing in 1998. Medical marijuana has also ascended in popularity in national polls: according to a 2011 CBS News Poll, 77 percent of Americans favor legalizing medical marijuana.
At the same time, the local enforcement of marijuana laws is lacking: the Portland police have neither the time, nor money, nor social support, to go after these clubs and medical marijuana patients.
United States Attorney General Eric Holder recently stated that a policy on new state laws regarding marijuana––including the legalization of it in Washington and Colorado––in relation to federal law would be announced “relatively soon.”
Until then, state governments may continue to be at odds with federal law. However, recent ballot measures and a national pro-medical marijuana sentiment will keep discussions about marijuana legalization at the forefront of social issues in the next decade.