Seattle Medical Marijuana Raids Highlight the Clash between State and Federal Law

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marijuanaA series of raids this past week on Seattle-area medical marijuana dispensaries brought the disparity between state level changes in drug laws and those at the Federal level into glaring focus. Amid much jubilation, on Tuesday, July 23, 2013, New Hampshire signed the bill to join the growing list of states passing legislation legalizing marijuana for medical use. Then on Wednesday, the 24th, the Seattle branch of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) launched a raid — reported as two years in the making — on area dispensaries.

The use of medical marijuana is legal in the state of Washington. Dispensaries are licensed and regulated at both the city and state level. While all of the medical marijuana dispensaries in the Seattle area were not raided, reports varied with the number of reported raids ranging between 5 and 19. Although the DEA did not provide information on the number of warrants or dispensaries targeted, four dispensaries were confirmed raided through media sources.

This was not the first time medical marijuana dispensaries have been raided in Seattle. Previous raids supposedly only targeted those operating outside the law, and cease-and-desist letters that included Federal forfeiture notices were sent to a number of area dispensaries back in the spring. While a number of those who received the letters said they were in compliance with all state laws and medical marijuana dispensary regulations, the DEA letter stated “…distributing, possessing with intent to distribute, or manufacturing controlled substances, or aiding and abetting such an offense violates federal law….”

With 52% of the population now favoring full legalization of marijuana (Pew Research Center), a growing majority (increasing 11 points since 2010) of American citizens from every race, religion, political party, economic level, and career field, including medical and law enforcement professionals, all feel that it is time for change. Looking first to the needs of the sick and infirm, medical marijuana laws are being changed rapidly at the state level.


As of this writing, nineteen states have legalized marijuana for medical use, while Washington and Colorado have also legalized it for personal use. Five states have pending legislation. Four have favorable, but not specifically legalized legislation. Only 12 states voted the legislation down completely (ProCon.org).

Marijuana Use in Perspective

It would be naive to pretend that there were not at times a wink and a nod as to the need for a marijuana prescription. It is a possibility that some of those involved in the Seattle raids were not actually following all the guidelines — I don’t know. I do know, however, that despite the jokes and Reefer Madness spin, it is just as naive (and blatantly inexcusable) to not acknowledge the medicinal value of one of the oldest and most widely beneficial medicines in the history of human civilization.

Marijuana was not used recreationally to any real degree until after it was made illegal, when the propaganda mill started about what people were doing with it and what it did to those who used it. Go figure. Before that, cannabis was a prescription medication that you got from your doctor, when there was a need. That’s it. Despite the spin, there have been no recorded cases of death from the use of marijuana — ever. There have been numerous studies which vary somewhat, but what you generally find is pretty consistent — approximately 400,000 deaths per year from tobacco, 100,000 from alcohol, 20,000 from legal prescription drugs, 15,000 from other illegal drugs and “0” from marijuana. Zero. Although there have been cases where it may have been involved in some way, there is not a single incident recorded where marijuana was the actual cause of death. That is old news, as most of us are well aware of the misspeaks when it comes to the dangers of marijuana.

Despite perceptions, and more spin, not all medical marijuana advocates are in favor of full legalization. Cannabis has been in use as a medication for thousands of years. Many people want nothing more than to see cannabis-based products back in the pharmacopeia, available by prescription and under medical supervision when (and if) there is a need. In other words, back where it was before the advent of marijuana prohibition.

The Politics

With growing concern as to the damage drug laws are doing to the citizens of our country, President Obama, in his last bid to be reelected, declared that, under his administration, the Federal government would not use Justice Department resources to interfere in the changes in drug laws at the state level. He has been quoted on that many times and in many places.

However, instead of decreasing and pulling back in states where medical marijuana use is legal, enforcement has increased dramatically. Despite the fact that Obama was a stoner in his younger days and there are pictures of him high as a kite all over the Internet, the Obama Administration makes the Bush Administration look like a bunch of lightweights when it comes to the War on Drugs. I don’t think this is what people were voting for.

The Economics

A recent report by Americans for Safe Access (ASA) estimates that at least $180,000 has been spent per day during the Obama Administration just in targeting medical cannabis patients and dispensaries. In the past 17 years, the DEA has conducted over 528 raids on sick and injured individuals and the organizations dispensing their cannabis medication; 270 of those were during the Obama Administration. These numbers do not include any other illegal drugs, just medical marijuana. The Obama Administration has already spent nearly $300 million on enforcement efforts in medical marijuana states alone. The total Bush Administration expenditure was $200 million.

With a two year investigation leading up to the Seattle raids, estimates by ASC put the cost of these investigations at approximately $12,014,334, with the raids themselves costing an additional $300,000.

Drugs are big money, and I do not mean street crime. The correctional industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the US. In times past, no one wanted a prison in their town — now everybody does. There are jobs and money to be made for law enforcement officers, guards, supplies, meals, medical, telephone services, maintenance, lawyers and the list goes on. Courts are backed up, jails and prisons are overcrowded and more are being built as quickly as possible. The US has the largest prison population in the entire world; 25% of the world’s prison population is right here in our country. Despite drops in crime rates, in a bleak economy, a good law can mean good money, paychecks and making a lot of people happy; expect perhaps the people who see their lives ruined by the insanity of it all.

Real People

One of the most gut wrenching cases of all time was that of Peter McWilliams. A well known and respected author, he wrote nearly forty books, mostly self-help — several best-sellers. Check your shelf, chances are, if you ever bought a self-help or motivational book, you likely have one of his.

In 1996, McWilliams was diagnosed with AIDS and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This was the year California passed Proposition 215, allowing terminally ill patients access to marijuana. On his doctor’s advice, McWilliams used it for the nausea caused by his cancer medications, and it was successful in helping him keep his medicine down. During this time, he also became active in the medical marijuana movement, and was soon growing for his own use and for the California medical marijuana initiative. Even though what he was doing was legal and authorized under California law, this was not allowed as a defense when he was arrested under Federal charges. The case against him made him out to be a major drug kingpin, but his side of the story was not even allowed in court.

During the legal process, he was released on the condition that he not use any marijuana at all. He would have to submit to weekly drug tests. Because it was offered as collateral, if he failed a drug test, his elderly mother would lose her home. He died within days of discontinuing use of the cannabis.

McWilliams was not allowed a defense in his own case, as the fact that his marijuana use was a matter of life and death was not admissible in court. The fact that he suffered from AIDS and cancer, and needed the cannabis medication to keep the other medications down, was not allowed in court. The fact that he was using marijuana on the advice of his doctor was not allowed. He was in a wheelchair and going downhill rapidly at the time of his last court appearance. Then, as a condition of his release, he was ordered not to take his cannabis medicine. Not a single thing in his defense was ever allowed in court — and his life depended on the cannabis medication. No matter how you look at it, McWilliams was sentenced to death.


No Defense

To this day, when the DEA makes Federal level arrests in state licensed medical marijuana cases, no mention is allowed in court of any medical authorizations that the defense might have. The letter from last spring reiterates, “it is not a criminal defense or a defense to the forfeiture of property that an enterprise is providing ‘medical’ marijuana.” This applies to the patients as well as the dispensaries. They are not allowed to mention that the reason they had such a large amount was that they are a licensed medical dispensary. Patients with prescriptions are not allowed to mention that they are using it under medical supervision. Even if it is a matter of life and death, these things are not admissible in court. Without being able to present a defense, when they get to court, terminally ill medical patients frequently come across looking like major drug lord kingpins. The sentences are harsh; many of those sentenced expect to end their life in prison.

Working for Change

Although support for change is increasing rapidly, the states that have passed changes in their marijuana laws are finding Federal interference to be a tremendous problem. On the national level, H.R. 1523 was recently introduced asking that state marijuana laws be respected.

The California Democratic Party, in dealing with its share of Federal raids on its own citizens (Peter McWilliams, for example), passed a resolution this past week voicing its support for changes in the marijuana laws in Washington and Colorado and formally asking that the Federal government get its hands out of state laws.

Steve Elliott of Toke Signals TV, Seattle, voiced the sentiments of the people, “What we’re seeing here is a tragic waste of taxpayer resources, with the effect of reducing safe access for seriously ill medical marijuana patients in Washington. How much longer will the Federal government continue pursuing its failed and quixotic policy of raiding facilities which exist to serve seriously ill people?”

Thanks to Steve Elliott of Toke Signals, Seattle, for consultation.

Regina Garson

Raised in the hill country of central Alabama, Regina Garson has degrees in Behavioral Science, Communications, and English. A long time writer, editor and activist, her career has involved both the social and the hard sciences. She has devoted her efforts to a number of causes including the War on Drugs, equality issues: race/diversity/women, labor and workplace issues, NASA, STEM education, and space development. She is founder and publisher of MagicStream.org, which is among the earliest self-help and wellness sites on the Internet. She also publishes a blog, where you can read more of her writing: Regina Garson's Blog. Follow her on Twitter @ReginaGarson, like her on Facebook, and read more of her articles in the archives.
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