Jacob Sullum
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In their Oct. 7 press release announcing "coordinated enforcement actions" against medical marijuana dispensaries, California's four U.S. attorneys use the adjective "commercial" to describe their targets eight times and refer to "profit" nine times, not counting two mentions of "money" and one of "moneymaking." You might surmise from these clues that nonprofit organizations supplying marijuana to authorized patients need not worry about raids, forfeiture and prosecution -- but only if you are unfamiliar with the Obama administration's weaselly ways.

Barack Obama promised a more tolerant approach to medical marijuana, saying he would not "circumvent state laws on this issue." Instead, he has delivered a crackdown more aggressive than anything seen under George W. Bush, featuring more-frequent raids, threats to landlords and banks, and ruinous IRS audits. Although his underlings occasionally pretend they are respecting state law, they clearly have no intention of doing so.

California's Medical Marijuana Program Act, a 2003 law that supplements the Compassionate Use Act approved by voters in 1996, exempts qualified patients and their "primary caregivers" from state penalties for growing, possessing or distributing cannabis but does not cover distribution "for profit." When he was California's attorney general, Gov. Jerry Brown read this law, which allows patients and caregivers to grow marijuana "collectively or cooperatively," as permitting fees to "cover overhead costs and operating expenses" -- i.e., nonprofit sales.

Last week, Andre Birotte Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, emphasized that for-profit distribution "is not what the California voters intended or authorized" and "is illegal under California law" -- statements that seemed consistent with an October 2009 Justice Department memo announcing a policy of prosecutorial forbearance for medical marijuana providers who comply with state law. Yet Birotte immediately cast doubt on his respect for the will of California's voters by declaring that "we have yet to find a single instance in which a marijuana store was able to prove that it was a not-for-profit organization."

Why not let California officials enforce California law? If dispensaries do not qualify for the medical exemption, their operators can be prosecuted in state court.

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Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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