Anti-marijuana group says it’s working with the DEA to sabotage medical pot

The DEA isn't supposed to endorse this type of activity.

Executives review plants at a licensed medical marijuana grow in Maryland. CREDIT: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Executives review plants at a licensed medical marijuana grow in Maryland. CREDIT: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Federal officials are getting dragged into a state-level fight over medical marijuana, after opponents of a ballot initiative to legalize the idea in Utah claimed that the Drug Enforcement Agency supports their efforts.

The group, Drug Safe Utah, is a registered political organization fronting for the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum – the organization once run by the late Phyllis Schlafly – and the state’s health care lobby, the Utah Medical Association. But Drug Safe Utah’s registration papers with the state also list a third organization as “affiliated” with its work: the DEA’s Salt Lake City Metro Narcotics Task Force.

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A spokesman at DEA’s national headquarters said the agency does not support or endorse any proposed legislation anywhere, and that it follows the Hatch Act on all political activity. He directed more specific questions about the Salt Lake City office’s interactions with the Eagle Forum/UMA campaign group to a colleague in Denver who did not immediately respond to questions.

Whatever the agency’s policy or intentions here, its Salt Lake City staff have handed the UMA/Eagle Forum group a potent political weapon in their campaign against the medical pot ballot measure: the appearance of law enforcement backing.

“Our reasoning behind wanting to put some law enforcement behind it is I think it adds legitimacy to the campaign when law enforcement is seen as being on your side,” Utah Medical Association VP for Communications Mark Fotheringham told ThinkProgress.

That’s exactly the kind of reputation-borrowing that the DEA’s non-participation policies on local political affairs are designed to avoid. The Hatch Act prohibits public employees from spending taxpayer time on partisan politics – but a pot ballot measure isn’t inherently partisan, potentially leaving enough leeway for a DEA staffer to feel confident that helping Schlafly’s and Fotheringham’s groups is legally safe.

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Drug Safe Utah isn’t just knocking on doors to ask voters to vote “no” on medical pot. They’re trying to prevent any vote from happening at all by seeking out the individuals who signed the ballot measure petition and asking them to rescind their support, in hopes of keeping the proposed medical marijuana system from going to voters at all.

Utah law allows opponents of a proposed ballot initiative up to one month to convince petition signers to cross their names out before the state officially determines if an idea has enough support to go before voters. The group’s campaign already has an influential endorsement from the powerful Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Mormon Church’s leadership have publicly rejected the medical marijuana plan. The church has provided “absolutely no” material support to the canvassing work, Fotheringham said, just its public opposition to the ballot plan.

By adding the DEA’s name to work already backed by church leaders, Drug Safe Utah is using two of the highest moral authorities in Utah public life to press petition signers to withdraw their support.

Any such interference with the duly signed petitions process that Utahns have for populist bypassing of politicians would be disquieting to transparency and democracy advocates, said Chase Thomas of the Alliance for a Better Utah. But leading voters to believe that federal law enforcement has taken sides in the campaign goes even further.

“This is supposed to be a citizen’s initiative. It’s part of the constitutional powers in Utah that citizens have a right they can invoke” to bring laws forward on their own, Thomas said. “A federal government task force trying to keep this off the ballot seems even worse than private citizens or corporations doing so.”

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Whatever the agency’s policies against endorsing or affiliating with political groups, Fotheringham said the DEA’s Salt Lake City team had given its permission to be listed publicly on the campaign’s website.

“We asked them, how would you like to be listed [on the website]? They said ‘if you’re going to put us on at all, just put us on as drug safety advisors,’ because that’s what they’re doing,” he said.

The same logic may have guided the group’s lawyers or accountants to include the DEA task force as an affiliated group in the official campaign finance documents. Fotheringham said the DEA has provided no material support that would constitute an in-kind donation to the effort, only furnished research and statistics that DEA is solely positioned to have.

But the same appearance of a law enforcement thumbs-up that Fotheringham’s group was excited to cultivate gives transparency advocates in the state pause.

“First off it raises the question, has this been something we’ve missed in other campaigns across the nation? Has the local DEA task force been involved with these initiative processes either officially on the forms or just in background support?” Thomas, the transparency advocate, said. “We just don’t know.”

The list of named endorsements for any given political idea don’t necessarily end up meaning all that much in the end. Just ask the thousands of well-respected professionals and organizations who endorsed Hillary Clinton for the White House. Things hinge more closely on what message an organization presents to voters – and the medical cannabis campaign’s backers say Fotheringham’s outfit is using dishonest messages to manipulate Utahns.

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The cannabis news site Marijuana Moment claimed to have obtained the Drug Safe Utah campaign’s script for canvassers, publishing a sloppily-typed memo that urged staff to make wildly different arguments to different people depending on their age. Older signers should be warned that the bill will let anyone smoke pot anywhere they want any time, while younger signers should be warned that the bill would make it impossible to smoke rather than eat or vaporize their cannabis – opposite messages that, if actually used, would reveal an organization willing to cheat to win rather than play straight with people.

Fotheringham denied having any hand in the typo-heavy document, which indicates it was written by someone named Ian. No one by that name works for Drug Safe Utah, Fotheringham said.

But the canvassers that the Eagle Forum/Utah Medical Association group are using are not the kinds of savvy professionals who would know better than to use the flagrantly deceitful tactics suggested in the yet-unverified document. The groups are hiring anyone interested in knocking doors for them, promising $200 a day for the work on online jobs postings that specify no experience is needed.

After video showing a clumsy encounter between a petition signer and a canvasser hit the web over the weekend, Fotheringham acknowledged to local reporters that the interest group didn’t have very tight control over the door-knocking project because it is paying a third party vendor to run it rather than training and deploying volunteers who support their cause.

“We do not, however, have any control over who THEY hire. If this is one of their canvassers, she is in serious need of training. None of what is portrayed on the video is in accordance with our name removal campaign,” he wrote to the local Fox affiliate.

Fotheringham provided ThinkProgress a copy of one piece of literature the group is using to call petition signers’ attention to what they see as deficiencies in the law. It offers no hint of the group officially urging canvassers to make contradictory arguments to the young and old, a tactic Fotheringham dismissed as ludicrous and ineffective.

The official literature suggests that federal drug cops are supporting the anti-legalization campaign, listing the United States Drug Enforcement Agency as one of the “members” of Drug Safe Utah.

Nearly all the document’s bullet points reflect a deep discomfort with marijuana, emphasizing that medical cannabis patients would be able to have a fairly large amount of cannabis in their homes and that the law grants “IMMUNITY or PUNY PENALTIES” for a substance that’s still regarded as felonious in federal law. It does not specifically cite any of the specialized research or statistics campaigners say the DEA provided – though it does pull an outdated figure on youth marijuana consumption from a sub-agency of the Health and Human Services department – or make a specific argument about black and grey market cannabis.