In many ways, things have been looking up for supporters of medical marijuana. Opinion polls now suggest that the American public is swinging behind the idea — and it's already legal in 16 states and the District of Columbia. But the Obama administration has been taking a very different view lately.
Marijuana has been cropping up all over the country, becoming legal for medical use in places like Montana and Colorado, where the drug's so available that it became a target on Saturday Night Live this year.
On that show's "Weekend Update," Seth Meyers drew laughs when he said, "A doctor in Colorado has converted two trailers into mobile doctors' offices to help dispense medical marijuana to patients in rural areas. Oh wait, you know, I'm sorry I read that wrong. Some guy in Colorado is selling weed out of a trailer. There you go."
But John Walters, director of the Office of Drug Control Policy during the Bush administration, told NPR the widespread use of marijuana is no laughing matter.
"It's a dangerous addictive substance and people are playing games with this and pretending because they think it's cool sometimes to not take it seriously," Walters said.
But you know who is taking it seriously these days? The Obama administration, which recently lashed out against the drug in three distinct ways.
First, on Monday, the White House released its National Drug Control Strategy, reporting that use of marijuana is the highest it's been in eight years. The policy document went out of its way to oppose marijuana legalization, arguing the drug is addictive and unsafe.
Second, late last week, the Drug Enforcement Administration concluded that marijuana has no accepted medical use. So the DEA rejected a years-long effort to reclassify marijuana from a heavily restricted drug like heroin under the Controlled Substances Act to one that can be used more widely.
Finally, the Justice Department has taken a tough line on marijuana too. Federal prosecutors say they won't go after sick people. But late last month, they warned that big medical marijuana shops aren't exempt from federal prosecution if they distribute the drug, even in states where medical marijuana is legal.
That disappoints Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which argues for rethinking the approach to drugs.
"Unfortunately what the Obama administration seems to be doing is trying to scare precisely those state and local authorities who want to design sensible regulations to make sure all of this is properly under control," Nadelmann said. "You know a lot of this I think is about the Justice Department sort of firing a shot against the bow, and saying don't go too far."
Remember that Saturday Night Live joke?
Well, newspapers in the state report that Colorado now has more than 800 medical marijuana dispensaries and more than 1,000 growers who have registered with state authorities. Medical marijuana is legal there. Lawmakers even developed a database to keep track of the businesses that grow and sell the drug.
But distributing and selling marijuana remain crimes under federal law. And U.S. prosecutors say they won't give growers and sellers a get-out-of-jail-free card.
In a June 30 memo, Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole wrote that over the past year, several states have considered legislation to "authorize multiple large scale, privately-operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers. ... Those who engage in transactions involving the proceeds of such activity may also be in violation of federal money laundering statutes and other federal financial laws."
That's fine with John Walters, who worked on the issue for President Bush.
"Many of these markets are making millions of dollars, they're not nonprofits as they've been declared in other places," Walters said. "They're getting the marijuana from some of the same criminal mafias in Mexico that are killing people daily."
That includes groups of criminals that ship tons of marijuana into the U.S., through secret tunnels like one authorities found last winter near San Diego. The passageway was almost a half-mile long, tricked out with electricity and special ventilation systems.
No one in the U.S. is surprised prosecutors are cracking down on those big networks. But Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance said he wonders about all the rest.
"The question's going to be what happens with the hundreds, and it may now even be in the thousands, of dispensaries that are not operating at that large scale," Nadelmann said.
In the past few months, the DEA has conducted smaller raids of medical marijuana shops in Seattle, West Hollywood and Helena, Montana, all places where the drug is now legal for patients.