Medical marijuana has been legal in California for more than 15 years. Regulated dispensaries have been so well-received in Oakland -- $1.68 million in tax revenue last year -- that the City Council has voted to double the permits it issues.

So it's difficult to understand why federal agents last week raided Oaksterdam University, where students learn how to grow, harvest and sell cannabis in compliance with state law.

"That was quite an unfortunate event," said Sean Dunagan, who served 13 years with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"It's baffling why it happened," said Steve Downing, former Los Angeles deputy police chief and head of the city's narcotics enforcement unit.

Dunagan and Downing are members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of former law officers who once waged and now oppose what they call the country's failed war on drugs.

They are puzzled by what the feds were trying to accomplish.

"Nothing about those raids contributed to the safety of the community," Downing said. "They killed a lot of jobs. They put an important educational institution out of business. I can't find any merit to them."

Dunagan said the operation smacked of intimidation. "I think it was done to send a message to the industry, not just in California but in other states that they would be taking as hard of a line as possible."


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What made the raids on four Oaksterdam sites difficult to rationalize -- not to mention many other raids across California in recent months -- is the contradiction they represent to the position previously announced by President Barack Obama.

Marijuana distribution is a federal violation, but before Obama's 2008 election he said he was opposed to the feds intervening where states had approved medical use. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden said as much again in 2009 with a memo calling such interdictions an imprudent use of federal resources.

But actions speak louder than words, and according to spokesman Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project, "Obama has increased the raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, presiding over more than George W. Bush in a single term."

Dunagan pins some blame on the autonomy of enforcement agencies, which could teach Sarah Palin something about going rogue. "The DEA has always been very much against medical marijuana and as aggressive as it was allowed to be in enforcing prohibition," he said.

Downing, showing a cop's instincts, has his suspicions why. "When I don't understand something," he said, "the only thing left to do is follow the money. The money is so huge in this war on drugs."

High-profile arrests and seizures showcase an agency's worth. The greater its perceived value, the greater the budget it can command. What better way to justify its existence than shutting a cannabis institution founded by Richard Lee, a driving force behind the movement to legalize marijuana?

Dunagan can't disagree. He worked for the DEA as recently as 2011 -- he is part of a government watchdog organization now -- and understands the mind-set behind its operations.

"It's hard for the agency to justify increasing its budget if there's a decline in arrests and seizure," he said. "Those enforcement statistics are very closely watched by management. It's all part of keeping that money flowing, making managers look good and giving the appearance that they're being effective."

So what does it all say about marijuana's future?

"Polls show that about 80 percent of all people are in favor of legalizing medical marijuana," Dunagan said, "and 50 percent are in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use. As long as those trends continue, eventually public policy will change."

Then the drug police will have to find something else to occupy their time.

Maybe they can declare war on crime.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.