It could just be coincidence, of course. But just as a huge scandal unfolds in Washington over a seemingly botched guns-drug operation, and a possibly cover-up by Attorney General Eric Holder, the Department of Justice has announced a big crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries in California, long the leader in the medical marijuana movement. Something is very wrong here.

The guns-drug operation, run through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), was titled “Fast and Furious.” According to the Arizona Republic (h/t bmaz), it was “a federal gun-trafficking investigation that put hundreds of rifles and handguns from Arizona into the hands of criminals in Mexico.” “Legal guidance” to the BATF was provided through the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office. As the botched operation became known, an early casualty of the scandal was AZ U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, who resigned over the affair last August. Kenneth Melson, the former acting head of the BATF, would follow Burke out months later.

How botched was this operation, run, according to Congressional testimony, with help from the Internal Revenue Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement? According to a Jan. 8, 2010 briefing paper (PDF) from the BATF Phoenix Field Division Group, from September 2009 through January 2010 (date of the briefing), at least 20 gun traffickers had “purchased in excess of 650 firearms (mainly AK-47 variants) for which they have paid cash totaling more than $350,000.” According to news reports, ultimately, the number of guns sent over the border to Mexican drug cartels would number in the thousands, including hundreds of weapons to the brutal Sinaloa drug cartel. Meanwhile, ATF honchos watched the sales over closed-circuit video feed.

In December 2010, a Border Patrol agent was gunned down by a weapon traced to the “Fast and Furious” program, and that was too much for one BATF whistleblower: “Senior agents including [John] Dodson told CBS News they confronted their supervisors over and over…. “We just knew it wasn’t going to end well. There’s just no way it could,” Dodson said.

And what happened to all those guns, which were supposed to be tracked by U.S. agents? The BATF says it simply lost track of the weapons, which beggars all sense. As reported at Forbes:

ATF field agents were sending protests up their chain of command, because, as ATF Special Agent John Dodson told the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee on June 15, 2011, he and fellow agents were regularly ordered to abandon surveillance of suspicious gun purchases “knowing all the while that just days after these purchases, the guns that we saw these individuals buy would begin turning up at crime scenes in the United States and Mexico”….

ATF Special Agent Olindo James Casa also said at the June hearing that “on several occasions I personally requested to interdict or seize firearms, but I was always ordered to stand down and not to seize the firearms.”

According to Washington Times journalists Robert Farago and Ralph Dixon in an article last August, the Fast and Furious program was a cover-story for a covert CIA program to arm the Sinaloa cartel in prevent the competing Los Zetas cartel from staging a coup against the Mexican government. And — shades of the late Gary Webb! — the journalists claim the relationship extended to “(allowing) the Sinaloas to fly a 747 cargo plane packed with cocaine into American airspace – unmolested.”

First, the government instructed gun dealers to sell guns to suspicious characters, which were then “walked” across the border. Then the government failed to inform Mexican authorities anything about the operation (possibly because they didn’t trust them?). In any case, we are supposed to believe that government authorities simply lost track of the weapons?

The Dirty History of the CIA and the War on Drugs

The U.S. intelligence agencies have a long history of using drug running and drug proceeds to finance off-the-books covert activities, including wars, the buying of elected officials, and the smuggling of weapons to favored groups. The late Gary Webb, referenced above, was castigated by the mainstream press, did ground-breaking work on the connection between gun-running to the Contras, paid for by cocaine trafficking in the U.S., officially denied by the U.S. government, but later documented in Congressional hearings by John Kerry (see this 2004 Salon article). Webb lost his career and later his life to bring the truth to the American people.

The GOP and the right will only threaten Obama and Holder with scandal up to a point. They certainly will pull back before the intel community cries uncle too loudly, and only seek to investigate to smear the Obama administration, not to really blow the lid off sixty years of U.S. dirty games with drug traffickers.

The links between the CIA and Mexican drug cartels were highlighted recently in the federal criminal case against alleged Sinaloa cartel “kingpin,” Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla. According to an article by Bill Conroy at Narcosphere, “US government prosecutors filed pleadings in the case late last week seeking to invoke the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA), a measure designed to assure national security information does not surface in public court proceedings.” Why CIPA in this case? Niebla has asserted in court filings last July that “the US government… [cut] a deal with the the ‘Sinaloa Cartel’ that gave its leadership ‘carte blanche to continue to smuggle tons of illicit drugs into Chicago and the rest of the United States.’”

The use of the supposed war on drugs to hide money, guns and influence, and at times to actually deal drugs at the behest of the government has been the subject of some notable and influential investigations over the years. Besides Webb, there was Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, and more recently, Douglas Valentine’s The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs.

Guns to Drug Lords, Jail for Medicinal Marijuana Club Owners

The GOP and right-wing press has been having a field day with this story, and the sudden appearance of documents showing Holder was briefed on the program when he appeared to say he knew nothing about it, has sharpened the GOP’s talons, out for Administration blood.

So what’s an embattled DoJ to do? They appear to have decided now is a good time to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries in California, the better to burnish their anti-drug credentials. According to the Washington Post, “at least 16 pot shops or their landlords received letters this week warning face they would face criminal charges and confiscation of their property if the dispensaries do not shut down in 45 days.”

A story at NPR suggests the roots for the crackdown are in a memo put out last June by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. Noting that the Administration’s policy had been that limited funds precluded going after pot sold to caregivers and the ill, Cole announced that things had changed (bold emphasis added):

The Department’s view of the efficient use of limited federal resources as articulated in the Ogden Memorandum has not changed. There has, however, been an increase in the scope of commercial cultivation, sale, distribution and use of marijuana for purported medical purposes….

The Ogden Memorandum was never intended to shield such activities from federal enforcement action and prosecution, even where those activities purport to comply with state law. Persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law. Consistent with resource constraints and the discretion you may exercise in your district, such persons are subject to federal enforcement action, including potential prosecution. State laws or local ordinances are not a defense to civil or criminal enforcement of federal law….

The Obama administration has taken a much tougher line when it comes to the recreational or medicinal user of marijuana than it does to drug cartel gangsters. And the GOP, anxious to make Holder look bad, will line up behind the anti-marijuana crusade.

Truly the hypocrisy in this country is so thick you couldn’t cut it with a buzz saw. There should be investigations over the “Fast and Furious” operation and possible intelligence connections to the drug cartels; meanwhile, the administration should pull back from their anti-marijuana stance. The drug should not be illegal, but licensed, controlled, and sold commercially for the relatively mild intoxicant that it is, one that also has some beneficial medical uses (just like alcohol!). Abuse of the drug is a matter for public health policy, not jails.