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Medical Marijuana Advocate Feels Betrayed by Obama

Steve DeAngelo, Ex. Dir. Harborside Health Center
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Steve DeAngelo, Ex. Dir. Harborside Health Center
New Justice Department memo says medical marijuana growers will be prosecuted

Updated: 3:26 p.m., 7/3/11.

Steve DeAngelo was in the airport Friday morning on his way to the Rainbow Gathering, a weeklong hippie-fest, in the state of Washington. 

But DeAngelo, who runs Oakland's Harborside Health Center, one of the nation's largest medical marijuana dispensaries, wasn’t feeling very peaceful, in fact, he was fuming.

The reason: last night a memo leaked from the Department of Justice that shows the Obama Administration is taking a tougher stance against medical marijuana growers and sellers.

“I feel personally betrayed: I campaigned for Obama, I contributed to Obama. He said during his campaign that they would not go after people who were complying with state law,” said DeAngelo.  “I find myself thinking I might vote for a Republican for the first time in my life.”

Issued Wednesday, the missive from Deputy US Attorney General James Cole is supposed to clarify the 2009 Ogden memo, which encouraged law enforcement to lay off “individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."

Medical marijuana supporters viewed the Ogden memo as an olive branch from the Obama administration following eight years of aggressive prosecution by the Bush Administration. But the memo released this week says that with states and local governments contemplating regulations that allow “large-scale, privately-operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers,” things have changed.

“The Ogden Memorandum was never intended to shield such activities from federal enforcement action and prosecution, even where those activities purport to comply with state law,” Cole wrote.

Although the Cole memo specifically calls out large growing operations, Bill Panzer, a criminal defense attorney in Oakland, said the feds are sending a message to everyone.

“It does show that the federal government is considering going after producers, and I think people that are running dispensaries need to be careful too,” said Panzer. “The bottom line is that if you’re over a hundred plants, it puts you on the federal radar.”

People caught with more than 100 plants face harsher sentences under federal guidelines.

As the medical marijuana industry has grown in California, the federal government has made its displeasure known. Earlier this year, Oakland withdrew a plan to license four large indoor pot farms, under pressure from the Justice Department.

Panzer said he believes that Bay Area medical marijuana growers, under the jurisdiction of US Attorney for the Northern District of California Melinda Haag, should remain relatively safe.

But in the Eastern District, which encompasses most of the more conservative inland California, Panzer said it’s a different story. That’s where the feds arrested Yan Ebyam, the former Oakland potrepreneur, last week for two large medical marijuana growing operations.

Panzer summed up the federal government’s position on medical marijuana, which still cautions against prosecuting patients who are seriously ill, as “don't indict anyone who won’t at live long enough to get through trial.”

The memo comes as political support for medical marijuana is growing. Conservative Arizona is now one of several states considering allowing pot clubs. Last month, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and Barney Frank have introduced a bill that would allow states to regulate pot.

DeAngelo, who said he might vote for Ron Paul, said Obama is making a “political miscalculation” by distancing himself from medical marijuana and the people who got him elected.

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