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"Hello and welcome," the voice said. "Thank you for joining us on this special evening to learn more about the clean cannabis movement."
I was in a white van, bouncing up a steep hill to a party at an undisclosed location in Berkeley, California. The voice came from an iPhone held up by one of my hosts, a young woman wearing a cocktail dress and a headband of white flowers. "If you do not wish to participate in the cannabis," the voice continued, as meditative music played in the background, "do not have anything the flower girls are carrying."
Duly warned, I was deposited at the front steps of Panoramic Sky, a three-story house designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright that rents on Airbnb, I later learned, for $2,800 a night. I was wearing a suit I'd bought earlier that day from Neiman Marcus, worried that I didn't own any clothes nice enough for the occasion. "Dress Code: Formal Attire (Great Gatsby meets California)," the invitation had said. A subsequent update noted that lots of "very important people" would be there.
RAMP founder Ann Lee, left, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who recently came out in favor of letting states legalize pot
Early last year, John Baucum, the political director of a group called Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), cornered Sen. Ted Cruz at a GOP event in Houston. Cruz, a former Texas prosecutor who talks the talk on states' rights, had criticized the Obama administration for declining to prosecute Colorado pot growers. Baucum wanted to point out the disconnect: "It sounded like you were making an argument against federalism," he recalls telling Cruz.
"I don't believe that when God made marijuana he made a mistake that the government needs to fix."
Perhaps his comment got Cruz thinking, because last week, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC, Cruz reversed course on pot: "Look, I actually think this is a great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called 'the laboratories of democracy,'" he told Sean Hannity during the Republican go-to event, where RAMP had a table set up. "If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that's their prerogative."
On the heels of CPAC, state representative David Simpson, a Republican from East Texas whom RAMP had lobbied heavily, introduced a new bill that would abolish dozens of state marijuana statutes, essentially legalizing pot in the Lone Star State. "I don't believe that when God made marijuana he made a mistake that the government needs to fix," Simpson wrote in the Texas Tribune. "The time has come for a thoughtful discussion of the prudence of the prohibition approach to drug abuse."
Melinda Haag, US Attorney for Northern California.
Several California congressional representatives issued a statement Friday accusing the Department of Justice of "not acting within the spirit or letter of the law" in its pursuit of a three-year-old legal case aimed at shutting down Harborside Health Center, one of the country's largest and most respected pot dispensaries.
"As Members of Congress we have watched the public acceptance of medical marijuana develop and grow while the Federal policy on it stagnates," wrote Reps. Sam Farr, Dana Rohrabacher, and Barbara Lee.
In 2012, US Attorney Melinda Haag initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against Harborside, which does $25 million a year in sales, on the grounds that it had grown too big. The move came as shock to many in California's medical marijuana industry; Harborside was widely viewed as one of the state's most ethical and legally compliant dispensaries. A few months later, the City of Oakland sued to block Haag's case, arguing that shutting down Harborside would create a public health crisis.
"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo.
The following year, the Justice Department issued a memo laying out a more permissive federal policy on pot, and federal prosecutors dropped similar civil forfeiture proceedings against several dispensaries in Los Angeles. But in Northern California, Haag pressed on with her case against Harborside and the Berkeley Patients Group, another large, well-respected dispensary.
Motivated in part by Haag's prosecutions, Reps. Farr and Rohrabacher won a provision in December's federal appropriations bill that blocks the DOJ from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients that abide by state laws. The move was expected to be the nail in the coffin for Haag's pot cases. But on February 3, she appeared before 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to push the case forward, arguing that the City of Oakland shouldn't be allowed to challenge the proceedings.
"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal in the Harborside case," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo. Haag's office could not immediately be reached for comment.
The DOJ's ongoing pursuit of the case has led to much debate about Haag's motivations. Some observers wonder if she's simply a dyed-in-the-wool drug warrior. Others speculate that the DOJ sees the case as a way to continue to discourage the expansion of marijuana businesses in California, where pot laws are notoriously loose and decentralized.
"It can be dismaying to me as a businessperson to have these persistent attacks keep coming at Harborside and see most of the rest of the industry not similarly targeted," DeAngelo says. "But I did not get into this industry to make lots of money, I got into this to make cannabis legal. And I think we are gong to win."
Despite the legalization of medical marijuana in 30 states, the federal government still lists cannabis under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which means that it has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." But today, the nation's new top doctor appeared to challenge that designation.
"We have some preliminary data showing that for some medical conditions and symptoms that marijuana can be helpful," Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told CBS This Morning. "So I think we have to use that data to drive policymaking, and I'm very interested to see where that data takes us."
Here's the full interview (Murthy's comments on medical marijuana start at 3:48):
Sitting atop San Francisco's Nob Hill last week, in a banquet room of the opulent Fairmont Hotel, I began thinking maybe I ought to invest in marijuana. "You really should," said a woman at my table, who reminded me, in her wholesome, middle-aged earnestness, of my mom. About a year ago she poured money into Poseidon Asset Management, a marijuana hedge fund that requires a minimum investment of $100,000. The fund earned a 67 percent return in 2014, besting the S&P 500 by a factor of six. Now she's trying to figure out what to do with all of her extra cash.
As we talk, dozens of professional investors are listening to a handful of suit-wearing pot entrepreneurs compete onstage for start-up funding. There's SweetLeaf, an organic edibles company that will target the Whole Foods demographic; Intelligent Light Source, a maker of hydroponics lamps that has ties to MIT; and VapeXHale, a high-end vaporizer controlled by an iPhone app. I'm feeling pretty good about all of them, not least because they've already been vetted and incubated by the ArcView Group, the gathering's organizer and a sort of Y-Combinator for pot startups.