When it comes to medical marijuana, the Obama administration's Justice Department seems out of control.

The president says he has "bigger fish to fry" than targeting pot smokers in Colorado and Washington, where voters in November legalized recreational use. But in California, where voters legalized medicinal use way back in 1996, the feds continue to act like bullies.

Under federal law, pot use remains illegal. The Justice Department has said it will not go after patients and caregivers operating within state law. On the other hand, it has said it will aggressively pursue for-profit marijuana enterprises.

This plant was seeded without soil, in pulverized rock, to spur faster growth. Colorado’s medical-marijuana industry is increasingly sophisticated at
This plant was seeded without soil, in pulverized rock, to spur faster growth. Colorado's medical-marijuana industry is increasingly sophisticated at producing high-quality crops indoors. (Alan Berner/Seattle Times/MCT)

What that means remains unclear. The ambiguity has come to a head in a case involving Harborside Health Center, officially a nonprofit and the nation's largest medical marijuana dispensary with locations in Oakland and San Jose.

Rather than file a direct legal case against Harborside, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag has gone after its landlords. Haag is trying to take away the properties under federal forfeiture laws that allow seizures of buildings that house illegal drug business.

The two landlords responded by trying to evict the tenants. In the Oakland case, an Alameda County judge ruled that under state law the company was running a legal business and had not violated its lease. A judge in the San Jose case ruled the other way, but Harborside is appealing.


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Both landlords meanwhile went to federal court, where a judge ruled that they cannot use U.S. law to force the dispensary to shut down. So the property owners remain under a threat of losing their properties but unable to evict their tenant.

All of this prompts the larger question: Why aren't the feds going directly after Harborside? The answer is political and legal. Prosecuting Harborside would raise the profile of the cases and spotlight the policy inconsistencies within the administration about marijuana. Also, the federal government remains on shaky legal ground because it had promised for years not to go after operations that are legal under state law, but it now seems to be doing so.

We understand that the feds don't want medical marijuana operations to become a center for crime and financial greed. The voters of California agreed with that. State law requires that medical marijuana operations are not to be for profit. It seems Harborside complies with that. If it doesn't, that's another matter. But so far, the federal government hasn't proved that point.

Meanwhile, we hear a consistent theme from federal prosecutors that they don't seem to like large marijuana dispensaries. We're unclear what size has to do with this. If anything, a few larger, well-run operations are easier to regulate than scores of small outfits.

For now, the administration has inconsistent marijuana policies. It's time for Attorney General Eric Holder to decide whether he's going to follow the lead of the president or continue to let his prosecutors run wild. We're tired of the latter.