The DEA on Marijuana: Still Out of Date


The US Department of Justice sent a memorandum to US Attorneys throughout the country on October 19, 2009 providing instructions regarding the investigation and prosecution of medical marijuana related offenses where such activity is authorized under state law.


Authored by David W. Ogden, Deputy Attorney General, the memo reaffirms the government’s commitment to disrupt illegal drug trafficking but stresses that “as a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” 


Now, three months later, it is clear that the DEA must be having a hard time coming to terms with the ramifications of this change in federal policy. They may be following orders to end raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, but their official position on marijuana’s use as medicine hasn’t changed one bit. Just take a look at their website. According to the DEA’s official position on marijuana “it is not medicine and it is not safe.”


In all fairness, the DEA is still running on autopilot. The Obama Administration has yet to appoint an administrator for the agency and it remains under the helm of acting administrator Michele Leonhart. The agency’s position document about marijuana was prepared and posted in October 2006. But there is a glaring inconsistency between their position on medical marijuana and the implicit recognition of medical marijuana’s acceptance by the Justice Department.


For example, the Ogden memo notes that “prosecution of individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen consistent with applicable state law, or those caregivers in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state law who provide such individuals with marijuana, is unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources.”


This statement acknowledges that individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen. This contradicts the DEA published statement that “there is no consensus of medical evidence that smoking marijuana helps patients.” 


The DEA still stresses that “the federal Controlled Substances Act includes the authority to regulate marijuana of a purely intrastate character, regardless of a state law purporting to authorize "medical" use of marijuana.” It needs to update their presentation to note that the current Administration has decided to defer to those laws with respect to federal prosecution priorities.


These state laws are proliferating. Since the DEA prepared their official position paper on marijuana in 2006 a lot has changed. For example, in addition to the new policy at the Department of Justice, Colorado has cleared the way for public dispensaries for medical marijuana, Michigan and New Jersey have enacted medical marijuana laws, and after a long period of inaction the Congress has assented to let Washington, D.C. implement medical marijuana legislation that was approved by voters in 1998.


The DEA promotes outdated and discredited theories about marijuana, still struggling in search of a suitable pretext to justify modern prohibition. They still cling to the old stepping stone hysteria that using marijuana leads to the use of more dangerous drugs. Only now they rely on the word “precursor,” a sufficiently accurate term to suggest the stepping stone dynamic without actually stating that marijuana use causes other drug use. The DEA argues that “Marijuana is a frequent precursor to the use of more dangerous drugs, and signals a significantly enhanced likelihood of drug problems in adult life.” Also, “marijuana is a typical precursor to methamphetamine. For instance . . . a substance abuse counselor in Idaho, pointed out that ‘in almost all cases meth users began with alcohol and pot.’”


Marijuana use does contribute to various social problems. For some individuals marijuana use does contribute to drug abuse problems, including problems with other and more dangerous drugs. Like alcohol, marijuana does contribute to delinquent behavior and impairment of driving ability. But also like alcohol, marijuana is used responsibly by a majority of users who make informed decisions about when, where, and in what circumstances they use marijuana. The reality of marijuana use and what we’ve learned scientifically about its use and effects is that modern prohibition is not justified by the available evidence no matter how prohibition’s defenders try to exaggerate and modernize the discredited theories of the past. (And, for the record, the Institute of Medicine’s report on medical marijuana contains a rather convincing refutation of the whole stepping stone hypothesis regarding the progression from marijuana to other drugs.)


The DEA has long been under the delusion that medical marijuana is just a slick marketing concept promoted by a few wealthy supporters of reform organizations. They argue that “a few billionaires – not broad grassroots support – started and sustain the "medical" marijuana and drug legalization movements in the United States.” Yet medical marijuana laws have been approved by the voters and/or legislatures of 15 states and the District of Columbia. Or, more precisely, Alaska, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington have all approved medical marijuana legislation. That’s pretty broad support.


It’s time for the Drug Enforcement Administration to come to terms with marijuana, especially with its medical use and most certainly with the new policy adopted by its superiors in the Department of Justice. Marijuana is medicine, it is safe, it does enjoy broad grassroots support and it’s high time the DEA dropped its outdated insistence otherwise.



Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES. A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues. On October 8, 2002, along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law. This column will track that petition's progress.