The medicinal value of cannabis is a controversial topic. The debate centering on the legality of its use in certain situations has been unresolved for decades now, fueled, to some extent, by the U.S. federal authorities refusal to accept its possible medicinal uses. That refusal has hit the billion dollar marijuana industry hard in recent times.

The major onslaught, by federal officials, on producers and distributors of medical marijuana in California has left the state-authorized industry shaken.

California state voters approved the use of marijuana, for medicinal purposes, in 1996 and production and distribution were therefore made legal. This, however, is in stark contrast to federal policies.

Although California citizens have been the primary targets of the federal raids (primarily because there are also people who sell the product to reap illegal profits, in addition to smuggling it to other states), in a 2009 announcement, the U.S. Justice Department said it would not normally pursue groups that provide marijuana for medicinal purposes and were acting in accordance with state laws.

However, despite the above statement, over the past several weeks, federal agencies, according to a New York Times (NYT) report, have been raiding and seizing property from several cultivators, many of whom are growing the product purely for dispensaries in California. At the same time, the Internal Revenue System (IRS) has levied large and disputed tax charges against the state's largest dispensary, threatening its ability to continue operations.

Kamala D. Harris, the Attorney General of California, described, in pointed terms, an Oct. 7 announcement, by four United States attorneys, of their campaign against dispensaries they called commercial operations that violate the intent of California law as well as federal statutes.

It was a unilateral federal action, and it has only increased uncertainty about how Californians can legitimately comply with state law, Harris said in an interview.

She, however, also described the state's system of monitoring and controlling medical marijuana asvague and chaotic and is working with legislators for stronger controls.

According to a NYT report, the growing pressure from federal agencies might lead to the shutdown of cooperatives that provide marijuana to more than 750,000 Californians, who have a genuine doctor's prescription for a drug that is believed to give relief to patients suffering for everything from AIDS to cancer.

The NYT report also talks about Mendocino County, which cooperates with federal agents to stop the illegal cultivation of marijuana. Officials here have worked out a permit and monthly monitoring system for small-scale farmers... the ones that cater exclusively to patient groups.

According to the Sheriff of the country, this has reduced his burdens and prevented the diversion of the product to the black market. He also praised the Northstone Organics Collective, run by Matthew Cohen, for scrupulous adherence to the rules.

However, on Oct. 13, Federal Drug Enforcement Authorities raided Cohen's property, destroying 99 plants (between 6 and 12 feet tall), meant to provide 1,700 patients.

The federal and state laws exist in parallel universes.  Growing and using medical marijuana is a right of a California citizen, said Thomas D. Allman, the Mendocino County sheriff, who believes that illegal cultivation and selling is a crime.

The state's largest dispensary, the Harborside Health Center in Oakland sells marijuana to more than 600 people every day, charging them between $25 and $60 per an eighth of an ounce, with a limit of two ounces per patient per week. This amount, according the Center's Executive Director, Steve DeAngelo, is the maximum amount that a medical patient could legitimately consume in a week. DeAngelo went on to say that the Centre had 95,000 members and was one of Oakland's top 10 taxpayers.

In October, the IRS informed the Center that it considered Harborside a criminal and drug-trafficking organization, meaning that it could not deduct its rent, salaries, counseling and other operations as business expenses. It charged the Center for $2.5 million in back taxes, which, according to DeAngelo, could spell the end of the Center.

We're clearly breaking federal law every day, but we are faithfully following the laws of California and Oakland, he said, indicating his determination to take the issue to the courts.

 Why is the federal government targeting legitimate, regulated enterprises? he asked, Is it better for patients to buy from a clean, safe store or from street dealers?

According to a report in Rolling Stones magazine, President Barack Obama indicated he was fine with the medical use of marijuana. He, apparently, also said he would not be interfering in situations where the growth and distribution of marijuana was in accordance with state laws. This makes for an interesting point, considering that a total of 16 states, including the District of Columbia have legalized the use of medical marijuana.

Even so, it would appear that federal authorities have been less than careful in where they tread. In an editorial published in the Nov. 6 edition of the NYT, Ethan Nadelmann, of the Drug Policy Alliance, listed the following steps taken by federal authorities:

  • Treasury Department has forced banks to close accounts of medical marijuana businesses in California
  • IRS has slapped dispensary owners with taxes required of no other businesses
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently ruled that medical marijuana patients cannot purchase firearms
  • Prosecutors have threatened to seize the property of landlords and send them to jailfor renting to marijuana dispensaries
  • U.S. attorney in San Diego has indicated targeting media outlets running dispensaries' ads

A lot of the medical marijuana stores that claim to be nonprofit are making lots of money, Benjamin B. Wagner, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of California, said, adding that in California almost anyone could get a medical recommendation for marijuana, effectively negating the original intentions of California voters.