Via Jeralyn this morning, I learned that the United States Attorney for Los Angeles, Thomas P O’Brien, spun his wheels and confused his staff with a contradictory set of memos about medical marijuana busts.

The U.S. attorney in Los Angeles sent a confidential memo to prosecutors last week ordering them to stop filing charges against medical marijuana dispensaries, then abruptly lifted the ban on Friday, according to sources familiar with the developments.

Stop filing charges? Don’t stop filing charges? What kind of confusing switcheroo is that?

In addition to being told to stop filing new cases, prosecutors were instructed to refrain from issuing subpoenas or applying for search warrants in pending cases, said the sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

In fact, a few hours after the memo was circulated, [Christine Ewell, head of the U.S. attorney’s criminal division] sent out another e-mail admonishing prosecutors not to discuss the contents of the memo with anyone outside the U.S. attorney’s office, the sources said.

No more subpoenas!  Stop those search warrant applications right now!  Pending cases must be dropped!  And, especially:  do not discuss this memo with anyone outside this office!

And then, on Friday, in a stunning about-face, an order came down to re-open the cases that were set aside:

Another e-mail came out Friday instructing prosecutors to resume work on medical marijuana cases. Despite the reversal, news of the temporary ban is likely to spark interest amid the ongoing national debate over medical marijuana. Thirteen states, including California, allow for the cultivation, use and sale of doctor-prescribed medical marijuana under certain conditions, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization that supports the legalization of the drug. Federal law, which trumps those of the states, bans the drug altogether.

As a result, operators of dispensaries in California and elsewhere who maintain they were operating under state law have been raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration and charged under federal drug laws.

Of course, the mixup may come from the top of the Department of Justice, where Eric Holder addressed the issue at the end of last month at a press conference, in a flip and offhand manner that could have confused underlings:

Attorney General Eric Holder said at a press conference Wednesday that the Justice Department will no longer raid medical marijuana clubs that are established legally under state law. His declaration is a fulfillment of a campaign promise by President Barack Obama, and marks a major shift from the previous administration.

After the inauguration, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continued to carry out such raids, despite Obama’s promise. Holder was asked if those raids represented American policy going forward.

"No," he said. "What the president said during the campaign, you’ll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we’ll be doing in law enforcement. He was my boss during the campaign. He is formally and technically and by law my boss now. What he said during the campaign is now American policy."

"You’ll be surprised to know??" As it turns out, Mr Holder, we would be surprised to know that United States attorneys are following the policy laid out by Barack Obama during the campaign. Because one of them, in Los Angeles, is not. We would be surprised to know that what Barack Obama said during the campaign is now American policy.

Because, at least within the jurisdiction of the United States Attorney for Los Angeles, it’s not.

I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, Mr Attorney General, but sending clear and unambiguous instructions on policy, without a smirk and clever innuendo, might be a better way to direct your department. Certainly, a clear policy statement from you, or from the President himself, on raids, arrests and prosecutions of patients and their providers, would avoid the kind of embarrassing about-face the US Attorney’s office was subjected to this week in Southern California.

Even if nobody was supposed to talk about it.

Teddy Partridge

Teddy Partridge