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Posts from — September 2011

Stirring the Pot/Legal

 Connecting the Dots

An Interview with

Drug Policy Alliance’s Tamar Todd

By Don Ruben

On assignment from Ragazine editor Mike Foldes, I conducted a telephone interview August 19, 2011, with Tamar Todd, staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) office of legal affairs in California. She was referred to us by the national office of DPA as the point person involved in litigation, legislative drafting, and public education advocacy involving medical marijuana, marijuana decriminalization, and legalization initiatives across the country.

Tamar Todd, DPA Photo

The Drug Policy Alliance was formed in July 2000 when The Lindesmith Center, an activist drug policy think-tank established in 1994, merged with the Drug Policy Foundation. More history on all three organizations is available at:

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted medical marijuana laws, but the Obama administration continues to follow the failed policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations, evidenced in this exchange at a town hall meeting in Cannon Falls, MN, earlier this year: A citizen asked, “If you can’t legalize marijuana, why can’t we just legalize medical marijuana, to help the people that need it?”

Obama responded, “Well, you know a lot of states are making decisions about medical marijuana. As a controlled substance, the issue then is, you know, is it being prescribed by a doctor, as opposed to, you know—well—I’ll—I’ll—I’ll—I’ll leave it at that.”

There’s a lot more at stake than the president seems to understand. Marijuana properly dispensed and regulated for medical use is legal in 16 states and DC, but it’s still illegal under federal law. Many believe the feds under Obama have been heavy handed, suggesting to state bar associations that private lawyers representing medical marijuana dispensaries are committing ethical violations because although MM may be legal in their states, it’s still a federal violation, making those private lawyers, in effect, participants in violating federal law. There is evidence that the feds urge state law enforcement to be extra vigilant in making sure that the MM (medical marijuana) legal guidelines are followed.

The interview that follows has been edited for clarity and length.


DR: For our readers, I would like to briefly talk about the mission of DPA. I have read your web site, and find it very informative and interesting.

TT: Thanks. We have recently revised the website and I’m very happy with it.

DR: It appears that DPA is more like a think tank than an activist organization like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

TT: We still have a think tank component, but we’re trying to become more directly involved in direct action work and litigation. We do put out booklets and information materials relating to different aspects of drug policy. Our headquarters is in New York City, and we have offices in five states (CA, CO, NJ, NM, and NY), with the office of legal affairs in California. Most of our legal litigation has been done in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and their drug justice section.

One of the main goals of DPA is ending the unjust drug policies because of discriminatory emphasis on Blacks and Latinos. We feel there is social injustice in the unequal arrest of these minorities that not only results in prison time, but also leaves them with a conviction and record which further impedes their getting employment.  It is our belief that although Whites use marijuana in about the same numbers as Blacks and Latinos, the arrest rates are entirely different and we want to address this injustice. We have partnered with the NAACP (National Association of Colored People) in this regard.

DR: Let’s turn our attention to medical marijuana. MM is now legal in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

TT: We are working and making our resources and help available to persons trying to get MM on the ballot in others states. We are definitely trying to be more active in this area. (DPA executive director) Ethan Nadelmann calls us a ‘connect the dots’ organization. We try and bring together several different organizations who are working on different aspects of the war on drugs.

DR: In 2008, candidate Barack Obama pledged that if elected, his administration would not use the Department of Justice (DOJ) resources to circumvent state laws on MM. Yet in June of 2011, President Obama’s DOJ issued new guidelines for US attorneys in a document known as the Cole memorandum. Didn’t Obama miss a key opportunity to clarify the state/federal conflict over MM? Instead of paving the way for responsible regulations in 16 states and D.C., the Cole memorandum brought more confusion and obstruction of state’s rights. What is your opinion of these new regulations, especially with regard to large growers?

TT: I understand and agree with you. The President has certainly failed to clarify the situation. The recent Cole memorandum from DOJ seems to agree and also disagree with the original Ogden memorandum saying Federal government would be hands off if dispensaries and growers followed state law guidelines. It definitely has a lack of clarity and there is almost a passive-aggressive policy by US attorneys. They send letters to state legislatures and governors in states considering MM laws and then tend to back off. Yet, in Washington State recently, one letter from a US Attorney was sufficient to give the governor the go ahead to veto the MM law. The President is certainly being very political. He sort of says one thing and yet the DOJ and US Attorneys know they can do what they have been doing and not get called on it.

DR: At the 2010 December NORML lawyers conference in Key West there was much discussion of how some state bar associations, at the urging of US attorneys, are warning private lawyers that it’s unethical to represent dispensaries — even in states with MM laws — because under federal law, marijuana is still illegal and a crime. This happened in Arizona and NORML lawyers have formed a committee to challenge it.

TT: I know, and I think it is also the case in Maine. But in California you can get CLE (Continuing Legal Education) credit for learning how to do it properly. Again, there is a lack of clarity.

DR: Recently the Obama administration flat out rejected the notion of even allowing hearings on marijuana’s federal schedule 1 classification. Schedule 1 means there is no valid medical use for marijuana. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) administrator Michelle Leonart denied a 9-year-old petition for hearings to reassign classification, an issue central to MM. The current schedule indicates marijuana has no redeeming value at all, although most medical professionals disagree.

TT: There is no science, reason, or compassion for such a stance. It’s all political. I don’t know anyone in the field who would agree with Leonart with a straight face. It’s policy based on political concerns by Obama without regard to any scientific proof.

DR: I think that Obama’s choice of Leonart as DEA chief is no different policy-wise than (choices) under Bush or Clinton.

TT: As I said, it must be based on some political calculation on his part, but I certainly don’t understand or agree with it.

DR: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the war on drugs, started by Nixon in 1971. It seems to many that ending prohibition and using the alcohol/tobacco regulate-and-tax model is the way to go. I clearly separate MM and the recreational user of cannabis. I think that ending prohibition would serve both of these users. I know that DPA is four-square behind ending prohibition.

TT: Yes, it’s the policy position of DPA that ending prohibition is the best way to effectuate MM policy. This would provide the best way to put patients’ needs first and also provide the best way to allow for scientific research into the use of marijuana for all kinds of medical needs. Also, as I have alluded to earlier, the social justice component is very important with regard to the arrests of blacks and Latinos. Ending prohibition would serve both groups. I think it’s important to support the federal bill sponsored by Barney Frank and Ron Paul for ending federal prohibition and leaving it to the states, similar to ending alcohol prohibition.

DR: I totally agree. Let me turn to Prop 19 in California. I know that DPA supported it and I also worked for its passage. Why do you think it narrowly failed, and what are the prospects for success in the future when it’s brought up again in 2012?

TT: I think we are at a tipping point similar to the issue of same-sex marriage. Also, 2010 was a non-presidential year and so not that many young people voted who tend to be liberal. I also felt that there is a profit question which must be addressed. The big dealers in, say, Humboldt county felt if (MM were) legalized, their profit would go down. Also, many in the MM business felt their profits would also be affected.

It's inevitable...

Ruben at Key West NORML Conference, Dec. 2010 Lelia Cady Photo

DR: Obviously, illegality creates higher prices. I think this can be addressed. I also believe, from my work on the issue, that voters have to understand that a person in California who has a MM prescription would be subject to criminal prosecution if they brought M to a state such as Ohio, where it is illegal. When the Prop 19 folks had a sounding board after the election, these issues were discussed as well as the fact that money from Soros and others came in too late. I agree that 2012, with a larger turnout and a better campaign, could prove to be a winner. I agree with Keith Stroup of NORML that the right to smoke cannabis is grounded in the constitutional right of privacy. How do you view it?

TT: I find the constitutional argument interesting. We at DPA view as part of our mission that the sovereignty of the individual over what they put in their body absent harm to others is the guiding principle.

DR: In conclusion, I say legalize, regulate, and tax.

TT: I agree.

DR: On behalf of Ragazine and myself, I thank you for taking the time for this interview and I wish DPA continued success.

TT: Thank you. If you have any further questions don’t hesitate to call or e-mail me.


Interviewer’s Note: I hope readers will take a moment to view an excellent video by DPA director Ethan Nadelmann, responding to the outlandish DEA claim that marijuana has no accepted medical use. Click here.

I believe that President Obama has reversed his campaign promises on MM and has followed the unscientific and uncompassionate views of the two Bushes and Clinton. He has failed to resolve the state/federal conflict and has allowed his DOJ and US attorneys to use their power to prevent states from adopting sustainable public policies for MM. I voted for Obama in 2008 and will not be supporting his reelection in 2012.DR


About Don Ruben: Ruben has been criminal defense lawyer for more than 40 years. He is a former assistant county prosecutor and served as an assistant attorney general under William B. Saxbe. He is a member of NORML’s legal committee and supports an end to cannabis prohibition. 



Anthony Haden-Guest

September 10, 2011   Comments Off on Stirring the Pot/Legal