They wanted his head, so he went after the potheads.
Eric Holder, Obama’s embattled Attorney General, was under mounting pressure from Congress to explain the botched Fast and Furious sting operation, whereby two thousand assault rifles and other firearms were sold to suspected traffickers for the Mexican drug cartels. It was intended as an intelligence-gathering ploy, but U.S. agents lost track of most of these weapons.
A drug war covert operation run by the Phoenix branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Fast and Furious remained a secret until the murder of an American border patrol agent in December 2010. Two guns found at the scene of the murder had been sold during the Fast and Furious operation. Arms from the same misbegotten cache were subsequently linked to many other crimes.
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For several months Holder stonewalled, disavowing any knowledge of the caper despite documentation showing that high-level Justice Department officials aided the surveillance mission. The fact that Fast and Furious had its roots in a similar Bush-era ATF operation mattered little to GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, the grandstanding chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who went so far as to accuse the Obama administration of purposely allowing the guns to escape as part of a liberal plot to impose new gun control laws. Issa was not credible; nor was Holder.
By early October 2011, there were calls for a special prosecutor to investigate whether Holder had perjured himself during testimony before Congress. Right-wing pundits described the scandal as “Obama’s Watergate.” The ATF announced a major shake-up at the top of the bureau. A chorus of disgruntled sheriffs and other G-men clamored for Holder’s resignation. The Attorney General was losing support among law enforcement rank-and-file.
But Holder had an ace up his sleeve, and he played it at a crucial moment.
Ever since California voters approved Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medical use in 1996, law enforcement lobbyists had been urging the federal government to enforce prohibition and choke off the burgeoning industry.
On October 7, the same day Holder wrote a detailed letter to Rep. Issa, defending his handling of the Fast and Furious affair, four federal prosecutors in California held a hastily organized press conference in which they threw down the gauntlet and announced the start of a far-ranging crackdown that would nearly decimate the Golden State’s medical marijuana industry.
Within ten months, close to half of California’s 1400 dispensaries would shut down as the DEA waged an all-out vendetta against what Proposition 215 had unloosed. The drug police weren’t just going after the bad apples; they were going after every apple in the barrel. Cannabis dispensaries abiding by state law were raided by federal agents. Federal prosecutors threatened to seize property from landlords who rented to medical marijuana facilities. The feds also threatened municipal officials who sought to implement state medical marijuana regulations. Federally insured banks and credit card companies refused to service marijuana-related enterprises.
Medical marijuana proponents were stunned and mystified by the ferocity of the Obama administration’s assault on the industry in California and elsewhere. Why did the former pot-smoking Choom Gang kid unleash the dogs of the drug war against a thriving business sector when times were tough economically and jobs were scarce? Why would the president risk alienating his base when public opinion polls showed that more than half of Americans favored legalizing marijuana for personal use?
It’s not as though Americans were dropping like flies because of medical marijuana abuse. More than a million Californians had gotten a doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis, and no fatalities or problematic health patterns attributable to the herb had emerged since the passage of Proposition 215.
Team Obama’s decision to crack down on the medical marijuana industry wasn’t motivated by public health concerns. The Justice Department green-lit a scorched earth campaign against medicinal cannabis in order to placate law enforcement and control the damage from the Fast and Furious scandal by deflecting attention to other matters.
Medical marijuana facilities were red meat for cops and an easy payday for narcs who were aching to take down pot-selling storefronts throughout the Golden State and beyond. Desperate to shore up support among law enforcement, Holder, a longtime marijuana foe, threw the drug war dogs the perfect bone on October 7, 2011. It was a politically expedient decision designed to protect the Attorney General’s bureaucratic position.
Marijuana’s illegality has long been a useful vehicle for Machiavellian public officials. In the mid-1930s, when Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, realized his entire department was on the chopping block because of Depression-era budget cuts, he launched the Reefer Madness campaign to convince Congress and the American people that a terrible menace threatened the country, one that required a well-funded antinarcotics program. He demonized marijuana to preserve and expand his bureaucratic fiefdom.
Backed into a corner, Holder drew from a similar playbook as Anslinger, underscoring once again that marijuana prohibition has little to do with the actual effects of the herb and everything to do with cynical bureaucratic self-interest.