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Fanning the flames

Fed busts ignite states' rights debate

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This week gun-toting agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Department of Homeland Security raided medicinal cannabis operations across the state, and it's left tens of thousands of our citizens wondering just what the hell's going on in good old Montana. While details of why the raids were launched remain extremely sparse, a plethora of possibilities are flying around. One thing seems certain, however: such Draconian actions by the federal government will only fan the flames of the nationwide states' rights debate.

At first glance, the statewide raids would appear to be a hard-core federal crackdown on those who are providing cannabis to patients under Montana's citizen-approved Medical Marijuana Act, which garnered 62 percent of the popular vote in 2004. But there are a couple of very serious problems with this assumption.

Back in October 2009, President Obama announced that his administration would no longer raid growing facilities or prosecute patients in the 14 states that, at that time, had approved the use of medical cannabis. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued legal guidelines for federal attorneys accompanied by this statement: "It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana."

That's a pretty unambiguous directive from their boss, so why did the federal agents seemingly ignore it this week? Some speculate that the answer might lie in the timing of the raids, which just happened to occur on the very day the Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked on a bill to repeal the state's medical marijuana law.

But if that's the case, we have bigger problems than federal agents ignoring the wishes of the president and attorney general. Some think it's a blatant attempt to influence the outcome of state legislation.

"Coincidence? We think not," says Tom Daubert, who was instrumental in the passage of the law and leads the pro-cannabis group Patients and Families United. "Thousands of legitimate, honorable Montana patients all over the state will now suffer unnecessarily, possibly for months on end, because the medicine that had been grown and the plants that were growing for them have now been destroyed. This massive, heavy-handed federal intrusion appears to directly contradict the Obama administration's policy on medical marijuana states' rights and to be timed and calculated deliberately to interfere with and to influence local decision-making in Montana on medical marijuana issues."

Some, however, think the federal government may be making a statement that is much larger than just medical cannabis. Consider, for instance, the bills in the current legislature to "nullify" any number of federal laws. Or how about the bills to make firearms and ammunition manufactured and used in Montana exempt from federal firearms regulation? Is it possible that the feds, through this show of force, are letting those trying to trump federal law know that Washington will not tolerate it?

Or, taking it up a notch, perhaps the federal government has heard all it wants to hear from Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Not long ago, Schweitzer urged citizens to take the law into their own hands and kill wolves, saying state fish and wildlife wardens would not enforce the Endangered Species Act protections. That's inciting people to break federal law, and could be prosecuted, although that would be messy. Perhaps just a little shock and awe aimed toward cannabis growers was intended to get the message across more directly.

But the wolf issue isn't the only thing the governor has butted heads with the feds over lately. Just last month he issued an executive order banning the transportation of Yellowstone bison into Montana. The effect was to immediately shut down any possibility of trucking the animals to slaughter, thus requiring the feds to keep more than 500 bison in overcrowded pens on the park's border. Last week he suggested the "solution" to the bison problem was to "cull" bison within Yellowstone National Park—a concept that sent the new park superintendent into near convulsions as he imagined the national reaction.

Bringing it a little closer to the bone, the federal government is none too happy about Schweitzer's possession of a list containing the real cost of prescription drugs and the outrageous markup by the private middle men that are hosing Montana's citizens and straining state budgets. Those lists are, by federal law, confidential and may not be released to the public. Yet Schweitzer has urged news agencies to "sue the state" for their release. Is Big Pharma really powerful enough to send federal law enforcement agencies out to destroy the competition from homegrown medicinals like cannabis—or try to intimidate a governor who has urged citizens to go to Canada to obtain low-cost pharmaceuticals?

Speaking of confidential, the federal agents didn't just confiscate the plants, lights and packaged medicine from the caregivers. They also took their computers and cell phones. Montana law considers the files on medical cannabis patients confidential medical records. Yet now, the records of more than 30,000 Montanans who went through the steps to legally register with the state are in the hands of federal agents and will likely be added to federal computer files on hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Americans. They may well determine who gets to fly where, who gets searched and how often.

There are a lot more questions than answers as Montanans react to the raids and wonder what happened to our right of privacy under the Montana Constitution—or if these are the first shots fired in a much larger states' rights civil war. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehberg are in positions to get us some answers, and they'd best be doing so damn quick.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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