Explaining Obama’s Medical Marijuana Crackdown

Obama's Justice Department continues its crackdown on medical marijuana, despite campaign promises to the contrary.

The folks at Reason have been keeping a rather keen eye on the escalation of the Obama administration’s war on medical marijuana; the latest salvo is apparently going to involve aggressive prosecutions of those advertising dispensaries, along with targeting landlords and other property owners whose tenants are dispensing pot, regardless of state licensing. Considering that the average Democrat supports legalizing pot outright,* and polls show even wider support for medical marijuana, the administration’s increasingly anti-pot position seems a bit inexplicable on the surface. However, I do think there are two potential explanations for this seemingly-conservative shift on the issue:

  1. Presidential politics: Most of the medical marijuana facilities are in California, a state that Obama has virtually no chance of losing in 2012. The policy is actually designed to shore up Obama’s support in swing states, where medical marijuana is not legal and the administration’s policy can be spun as “tough on drugs and crime.”
  2. Assertion of national authority against nullification more broadly: Although one would think that the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzales v. Raich, which (contrary to a line of Supreme Court cases leading to that point) found that non-commercial, intrastate activity, such as marijuana use, could be regulated under the commerce power, had settled the power of the national government to continue to regulate marijuana as a controlled substance, the behavior of the states that adopted medical marijuana laws has effectively advanced the doctrine of nullification, albeit this time from the left rather than its traditional home on the right. By cracking down on medical marijuana, the Obama administration is signalling that other nullification efforts, such as state laws against participation in ObamaCare and REAL ID, along with other efforts by states to make end-runs around federal policies, will be dealt with in a similar fashion.

The latter explanation, in particular, would explain the rather vehement reaction of the administration over the past couple of years to medical marijuana as other state-level efforts to nullify or crowd out federal policymaking prerogatives have emerged. But I’m certainly open to entertaining other theories.

* According to the 2010 General Social Survey, 52.0% of Democrats and Democrat-leaners supported legalization of marijuana (margin of error: ±4.0%).

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.


  1. anjin-san says:

    There is no way to explain it. Not a good one anyway. It’s a disgrace. Marijuana laws are about maintaining unreasonable levels of government power and keeping the funding flowing for the criminal justice & penal industries. Period. Pot is less destructive than alcohol and tobacco by orders of magnitude.

  2. rwb says:

    Given reason 2 above, WHERE ARE THE 10thers in this? Where is the tea party? Where are the “whatever it is (Obama does) I’m against it” Republicans? If you are not willing to accept the consequences of you positions, then you are just making excuses.

  3. Brett says:

    I think the poll might belie a generational gap. “Tough on drug” stances tend to be more popular with older people (including older voters) than with people in their 20s. I suspect that probably applies to older Democrats as well.

  4. Brett: There is definitely an age gap too (interestingly a majority of 18-34 year-old Republicans also support legalization, although the subsample is very small so it’s within the margin of error), but partisanship is also a factor.

  5. Did someone forget to close an HTML element or is it just me?

  6. sam says:

    WTF’s up with this page?

  7. mike says:

    Well at least the president’s admin is consistent – not following through on anything. I am convinced that if alcohol and marijuana were both discovered today, alcohol would be banned and MJ legalized. Alcohol is an absolute poison. I personally don’t use either but to criminalize either, I don’t understand. The president really needs to pick better battles.

  8. george says:

    Or maybe its just the typical “say one thing, do another when elected” approach taken by almost every politician of every party?

  9. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    This really isn’t surprising. Obama doesn’t want a Dukakis problem. Ergo he wants to run far to the right on crime and punishment issues. He doesn’t have to worry about upsetting his “base,” given that his core groups of supporters consist of useful idiots and human zombies who will vote for him in lock step regardless of what he says or does.

  10. Rob in CT says:

    I imagine it’s largely due to how entrenched the drug warriors are, coupled with the “I’m a Democrat so I’m terrified of being labled soft on crime.”

  11. PD Shaw says:

    It was bad policy. I feel sympathy for those duped into it, but there is no way in Hell you would ever get me to have my name on a license or receipt of good for something that is an admission of a federal felony. Go back and look at the original DOJ policy statement; it wasn’t very firm to begin with.

    What happened? I suspect every person in possession of quantities of pot in amounts indicating intent to distribute, when leaned on to finger a source, pointed to a licensed distributor. Much easier than pointing to someone connected with organized crime.

  12. MBunge says:

    Are the feds going after ACTUAL medical marijuana operations or just those selling pot for fun and profit who are using the CA law as a cover?


  13. James in LA says:

    @MBunge: After a conversation with a dispensary owner in the Melrose/La Brea area, he said the shops going down now were what we would call “seedy,” meaning, lax entry security, kids sitting around smoking pot, and in many cases, weapons found on the premises. The fed lacks the manpower to shut them all down, not by a long shot; it’s a game of whack-a-mole. And that’s just in LA. Multiply t he problem state-wide, and the fed cannot win this battle.

    So, why bother, given support has risen sharply? The Presidential politics theory fits; however, I doubt medical marijuana is on the President’s to-do list on a daily basis. Just a hunch.

    Legal pot is coming. Only a matter of time.

    And OTB, do speak to your web dude, this page is be-manglified!

  14. MBunge says:

    @James in LA: “he said the shops going down now were what we would call “seedy,” meaning, lax entry security, kids sitting around smoking pot, and in many cases, weapons found on the premises.”

    So, folks who want pot legalized should be thanking Obama for doing this because those kind of operations can only hurt the cause?


  15. James in LA says:

    @MBunge: “So, folks who want pot legalized should be thanking Obama for doing this because those kind of operations can only hurt the cause?”

    I’m not willing to go that far, no. I think Obama is misguided on this policy, one which has a larger, far more dangerous cousin, being the drug war in general. When corrections agencies benefit monetarily from incarceration of “offenders,” no matter how tightly we pack them together, and the President does not address it, this is by far the larger sin of omission.

    If a dispensary is operating in violation of State law, it should be shut down, but by CA, not the Fed. One suspects a future GOP President would also continue this vile policy, and with vigor.

  16. brian shafer says:

    The only reason I can see I that will give the 1% time to sneak a bill in to allow them to patent a plant or to keep prohibition as the immense healing effects could put drug Companies under…OWNED BY THE 1%!

  17. David4Peace says:

    If they’re doing this for votes, that is as profoundly evil as a politician could be, except maybe for starting wars, which Obama has done, too. If it’s a pre-emptive strike against nullification, that is also cause for impeachment. What part of the Constitution gives the Feds power over cannabis? I had absolutely no expectations for Obama at all, but he has been far worse than I ever imagined.

  18. massvocals says:

    the government no longer listen to the people , even as the people at staggering rate have made known they want change in marijuana law to out right legalization The process simple for the elect / rather choose to do nothing and allow petition process and then there is the federal law convict with state The drug law and the agency DEA should be put to rest
    please ad the last d in dea DEAD end those jobs

  19. heis says:

    California pot growers voted against state legalization, for understandable reasons. They got their wish. If the state had voted to legalize, pot would still be illegal under Fed law, but there would have been an interesting states rights scenario if the Feds had chosen to prosecute. The situation wherein growers can enjoy criminal prices without criminal prosecution is bound to end one way or the other.