Congressional cannaphobia

California’s lawmakers in D.C. still don’t want to touch marijuana

California’s Congressional delegation represents about 750,000 medical-cannabis patients and an industry that generates an estimated $1.3 billion in retail sales per year. But most of California’s representatives have been missing-in-action during the four-month-old federal crackdown on dispensaries and cultivators.

Since October 2011, four U.S. attorneys have threatened hundreds of landlords with civil forfeiture, which has lead to the closure of dozens of dispensaries in Sacramento. Prosecutors have repeatedly threatened local officials across the state, from Midtown to Mendocino and Chico to Oakland, with prison, fines and forfeiture.

Congress’ response to these unprecedented predations? A single letter.

In October, some members of Congress sent a letter to President Barack Obama expressing concern that the federal government was violating its own guidelines in coming after permitted dispensaries. “The actions … directly interfere with California’s 15-year-old medical cannabis law by eliminating safe access for the state’s thousands of medical cannabis patients,” the letter read.

The letter also asked the administration to reclassify marijuana so that it’s no longer considered a serious drug by the federal government, or support a bill to do so.

Co-signers to letter were few, however. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein had no love for medical marijuana. Of the 53 lawmakers from California in the House of Representatives, the co-signers included no one from the Sacramento region: Democrats Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Rep. Pete Stark of Fremont, Rep. Lynn Woolsey of Marin, Rep. Mike Thompson of Mendocino, Rep. Sam Farr of Santa Cruz, and Rep. Bob Filner of San Diego, as well as Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach.

The silence from the rest of California’s Congressional delegation also flies in the face of popular support among voters for medical pot. Medical cannabis polls above 70 percent statewide, and about 46 percent of voters in 2010 favored legalizing pot outright for adult use via Proposition 19.

Yet the view from Capitol Hill is bleak, said Filner, the only one among the co-signers of letter who agreed to an interview. “People are trying to stay out of it if they can,” Filner said.

Filner is running for mayor of San Diego this year, and his platform includes regulating medical marijuana locally. He’s running against San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who has worked with federal agents to eradicate access to cannabis collectives in San Diego.

“I think they misread the public on this stuff,” Filner said. “There is widespread support for medical marijuana.”

In a written statement, Oakland’s Rep. Lee said she’s a longtime supporter of safe and legal access. Lee wrote that she hopes she can “work with the Administration to find a way for these businesses to continue to operate like any other business and to provide patients the medicine that they need.”

Meanwhile, the three medical-marijuana related bills currently in Congress—House resolutions 1983, 1984 and 1985—are expected to languish in committee. “It’s just that nothing is happening in Congress,” Filner said. “The dysfunction is so widespread.”

Dale Gieringer, California director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, authored a letter this month to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, reporting that the crackdown “has so far resulted in the loss of thousands of tax-paying jobs and tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues.”

Gieringer said he talked to Pelosi’s staff and to staff members of other Congress members about the federal crackdown, but got nowhere.

“They’re not going to do anything,” he said. “There’s no chance of anything happening. [Even though] they’re all pretty much appalled by the way the Department of Justice has really patched together a response to this.”

One of the problems in the medical-cannabis community is that many dispensary operators are unfamiliar with politics. A 2011 poll of dispensary operators that found most had been in business for less than a year.

“They don’t know how to lobby, apparently,” Filner said. “It’s people that have not had to lobby and don’t know how to do it.”

Others, meanwhile, may circumvent the broken system. Colorado and Washington are considering legalizing all adult marijuana use via ballot initiative. And throughout California, local referendums and initiatives have started to regulate dispensaries by popular vote.

“I think the politicians are in the 20th century, and the people are in the 21st century on this issue,” Filner said. “I don’t understand the Obama administration—the cautious timidity. It’s a humanitarian issue to these voters. It just perplexes me that more people aren’t on board and the administration is so negative.”