The Department of Justice worked to actively discourage Congress from enacting protections for medical marijuana patients, according to a memo leaked in early August.
The memo shows the DOJ issued “talking points” about MMJ to members of Congress in the weeks leading up to a major vote last year. In that vote, Congress passed new rules barring the DOJ from interfering with medical weed in states where it’s legal.
The talking points were “intended to discourage” passage of the first MMJ bill in May 2014. That law prevents the DOJ from using federal funds to interfere with medical pot in California and other states that allow it. Later amendments added further restrictions.
Officials at the DOJ worried the laws might overreach and stop the DEA, the FBI, and other federal agencies from enforcing the law. Cannabis remains illegal for any use under federal anti-drug statutes.
The leaked memo, drafted in February, revealed that the DOJ was concerned the new rules could “limit or possibly eliminate the Department’s ability to enforce federal law in recreational marijuana cases as well.”
DOJ ignored new rules
But once the laws passed, the DOJ decided to stop fighting. Instead, officials decided, they would simply ignore the new rules. The DOJ said it no longer reads the laws as “placing any limitations on our ability to investigate and prosecute crimes involving recreational marijuana.”
The lawmakers behind the bills refuted that claim, saying the DOJ is simply breaking the law by continuing with criminal prosecutions against MMJ providers, especially in California.
Recent events have not been kind to those prosecutions or the officials behind them. The notorious U.S. attorney for the San Francisco Bay Area quit her post in early August; she gave no reason, but her long-running attempts to shutter pot shops likely played a role.
In Washington State, a jury recently acquitted a family accused of breaking federal law by growing medical marijuana at home. Another MMJ patient was acquitted in Florida. They were the first verdicts of their kind.
The former head of the DEA, meanwhile, was replaced earlier this year after she got tangled in a scandal involving federal agents, drug traffickers, and Colombian prostitutes. Her successor quickly acknowledged that pot is safer than heroin, an admission the agency had long refused to make.
DOJ failed to mislead new legislation
The DOJ’s talking points ultimately failed to derail the medical weed legislation, but pot proponents complained that the memo proves the department’s arguments were misleading.
“Prior to passage of the appropriations bill, the Department provided Congress with informal talking points addressing the amendment introduced by Rep. Rohrbacher (which became Section 538),” the memo says, referring to the MMJ amendment, which was added to the annual government spending bill in 2014 and again this year. “The talking points were consistent with the approach taken in the memorandum, with the exception that they warned that in states that permitted recreational marijuana, Rep. Rohrbacher’s amendment could, ‘in effect, limit or possibly eliminate the Department’s ability to enforce federal law in recreational marijuana cases as well.’ This suggestion, which was intended to discourage passage of the rider, does not reflect our current thinking. We do not read Section 538 as placing any limitation on our ability to investigate and prosecute crimes involving recreational marijuana.”
Just days before the memo leaked, Rohrbacher and other authors of the pro-marijuana bills sent a letter to the department’s inspector general, demanding an investigation into why DOJ officials continue to ignore the laws.
“The implementation of state law is carried out by individuals and businesses as the state authorizes them to do,” the letter says. “For DOJ to argue otherwise is a tortuous twisting of the text . . . and common sense.”