U.S. Mayors tell Feds: Hands off state-legal medical marijuana

In Feature Stories, Regulatory by Brett Wilkins

As public opinion increasingly favors medical marijuana, mayors across the U.S. are also endorsing both legalized medical and recreational cannabis. In addition, they are stressing the need for the federal government to lay off attacking local dispensaries.

Recently, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously passed a resolution calling on the federal government to adopt a hands-off approach to state marijuana laws. U.S. President Barack Obama promised such an approach during his 2008 presidential campaign: “I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue,” he vowed. But the president has reneged on his pledge. The Justice Department has launched a major nationwide crackdown on medical marijuana under the premise that cannabis remains a Schedule I narcotic – the same category as heroin, ecstasy, PCP and LSD – with “no currently accepted medical use.”

This state of affairs is often perceived as a slap in the face for the hundreds of thousands of patients who rely on medical marijuana for desperately-needed relief from a wide range of serious health conditions. It is also seen as an affront by many state and local leaders who are dismayed by the manner in which the federal government is ignoring the will of local voters and leaders.

Tom Bates

Tom Bates, Mayor of Berkeley, California

Tom Bates, mayor of Berkeley, California, has been dealing with the DOJ’s targeting of Berkeley Patients Group (BPG), a dispensary called a “model business” by city councilman Jesse Arreguín. Bates told a recent press conference that Attorney General Eric Holder “really messed up” by targeting BPG.

“We have local laws and state laws to regulate medical marijuana,” Berkeley Councilman Laurie Capitelli told The Medical Marijuana Review, urging the federal government to “go find something better to do than harass legitimate businesses in the city of Berkeley. Let’s go after bigger fish.” Mayor Bates added that Berkeley had “virtually no problems” with crime caused by the dispensary.

Echoing a 2012 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs which found that Sacramento, California neighborhoods with medical marijuana dispensaries were no more likely to have crime than other neighborhoods, all of the mayors interviewed by TMMR refuted the notion that dispensaries were magnets for criminal activity.

“I don’t believe there is any nexus between crime and well-run and properly licensed and regulated dispensaries,” said San Leandro, California Mayor Stephen Cassidy, a signatory to the U.S. Conference of Mayors resolution.

“Our police chief has reported no incidents at any medical marijuana establishments that could be attributed to marijuana,” agreed Ypsilanti, Michigan Mayor Paul Schreiber.

“I respect the voters of my community and they have shown strong support for the limited legalization of recreational marijuana,” Aurora, Colorado Mayor Steve Hogan, an outspoken signatory of the U.S. Conference of Mayors resolution, told The Medical Marijuana Review. “Aurora is taking a very deliberate and prudent course in implementing regulations that are reasonable to both residents and businesses, and give appropriate attention to public safety.”

Hogan said he hoped for the day when the federal government saw eye-to-eye with Colorado.

“There is no doubt that at some point in time, hopefully soon, state and federal laws will work toward mutual agreement that respects the will of Colorado voters,” he said.

‘Going after demonstrated drug cartels is fine. Going after dispensaries is not’

Another U.S. mayor wants to dispel the idea that marijuana use should be lumped in with other criminal activity.

“There is a widespread belief that people experiencing marijuana’s effects are seldom violent,” added Easthampton, Massachusetts Mayor Michael Tautznik.

Many elected officials we spoke to expressed a strong desire for the federal government to re-examine its priorities and focus its crime-fighting efforts elsewhere, rather than targeting dispensaries and, by extension, harming patients.

“Going after demonstrated drug cartels is fine. Going after dispensaries is not,” California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) said in a statement.

When asked if he was worried whether medical marijuana, which was legalized last November in Massachusetts, is a backdoor attempt at recreational legalization, Easthampton Mayor Tautznik quickly dismissed such concerns.

“I am not worried about legalization and I believe marijuana should be controlled in a manner similar to alcohol,” he said.

Other mayors, even some who signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors resolution, expressed less enthusiasm for legalization of any type. Jean Robb, the Tea Party–backed Republican mayor of Deerfield Beach, Florida, explained that she only signed the resolution out of “support… for the state to make its own determination on marijuana usage.”

In San Jose, California, the nation’s tenth largest city, the mayor’s office made it clear that “none of the dispensaries operating are currently legal.”

“There are no provisions under our zoning code for medical marijuana dispensaries,” Michelle McGurk, senior policy advisor for San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, told The Medical Marijuana Review.

“Any operator that opens a facility is in violation of the code and risking closure,” McGurk added. But what about state-legal patients who say medical marijuana can literally be a lifesaver?

The San Jose City Council enacted zoning and regulatory ordinances designed to ensure that those with legitimate medical needs would have access to medical cannabis, McGurk explained. “However, some medical marijuana advocates decided to circulate petitions for a referendum to overturn the regulations. Under California law, the council had a choice: either hold a costly election or withdraw the regulations. A council majority voted to suspend the ordinance.

“Now that the (state) Supreme Court has affirmed that cities have the right to regulate or ban medical marijuana dispensaries outright, the San Jose city council is expected to take another look at regulation later this year,” McGurk added.

Responsible regulation in cities and towns where voters have approved medical marijuana was the position most endorsed by the mayors we interviewed.
“In addition to the very real needs of patient relief, I do think there is a misallocation of federal resources involved here,” Richmond, California Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said. “We have major economic issues in cities like Richmond that the federal government should be addressing with greater resources. Jobs, economic equity, infrastructure needs, sustainability, education and immigrant rights issues should be on the front burner, not cracking down on state-legal dispensaries.”

Photo courtesy U.S. Dept of Education