Asa Hutchinson, the former Republican representative from Arkansas now serving as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, has a reputation as a straight shooter. When he was up for confirmation a few months ago, even Democrats who had strongly opposed his views as a manager of the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton testified in support of his nomination.
The other morning, Hutchinson was the guest at one of the breakfast interviews arranged by Godfrey Sperling Jr. of the Christian Science Monitor. Asked what the events of Sept. 11 had done to the war on drugs, Hutchinson readily admitted that the diversion of government resources to the antiterrorism campaign had left his agency stretched thin.
A significant number of FBI agents who had been working drug cases have been pulled off to assist in the dragnet for suspected terrorists, he said. Coast Guard vessels that had been patrolling the Caribbean to intercept drug smugglers are now protecting harbors. Customs agents are focusing on bioterrorism.
Hutchinson assured reporters that he agreed with the new priorities, but acknowledged that the DEA is struggling to "pick up the slack."
All of which makes it very strange, in my view, that on Oct. 25 about 30 DEA agents spent six hours in a raid on the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, a source of marijuana for patients with doctors' prescriptions for its use as a painkiller.
There was nothing illegal about the raid. The agents had a search warrant signed by a visiting federal judge from Florida. Scott Imler, the president of the center, told me the agents "were very polite. They did not pull guns or put anyone on the floor or handcuff anyone, or physically or verbally abuse anyone. They just gathered us together and went about collecting stuff."
They took marijuana plants, processed marijuana, 3,000 medical records and all the business documents on the site. The next day, Imler said, they seized the organization's bank accounts, effectively shutting down its normal operations.
In turn, Imler and his staff did not try to conceal anything; in fact, they opened the safe and allowed the agents to take away the contents. This was no clandestine operation.
Five years ago, when California voters overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana initiative financed by George Soros and two other multimillionaires, the Los Angeles County sheriff, Sherman Block, and officials of West Hollywood encouraged Imler and his associates to set up operations, even finding them a building to use.
John Duran, the center's attorney and a city councilman, said the organization has worked hand-in-glove with local officials, acceding to their requests that patients' status be verified every three months and that they carry identity cards attesting to their eligibility for marijuana possession.
"We've had nothing to hide for five years," Duran said. Indeed, DEA agents visited the center on Sept. 17 and were given a tour of the premises and a full explanation of its operations.
The authority for the raid rests on a Supreme Court decision last May that the passage of medical marijuana initiatives in California and seven other states does not override federal law classifying it as an illegal drug.
The question raised by Imler, Duran, civil liberties attorneys and even some conservative editorial pages is why such a raid would command the resources of the DEA at a time when it is being stretched to the limits.
When I asked Hutchinson, he replied that carrying out the federal marijuana ban "is our responsibility, but not a high priority." He acknowledged that he prefers to work with elected officials and local law enforcement, rather than opposing them, as in this case, but said that "when there is a gap" between state and federal law, his job is to enforce the congressional statutes.
That answer does not satisfy local officials. At the time of the raid, 960 people _ most of them with AIDS, the rest with cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease and other serious illnesses _ were alleviating pain and nausea with marijuana from Imler's center. No arrest warrants have been issued since the raid, and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office told me it will be "some time" before any prosecutions are decided. But the center has closed its dispensary because, as Imler said, "we do not want to distribute black market products." Now, Duran added, "we have 960 patients out in the parks, looking for drug dealers to get their marijuana, which is exactly what the city didn't want."
No one has alleged that anyone obtained marijuana without a medical prescription. Why in the world is the Bush administration fighting this battle, when there are so many more important wars to be won?
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.
Washington Post Writers Group