Chem Tales: Cannabis's No. 1 Enemy Exits

Last week, Melinda Haag, who served as the United States Attorney in San Francisco since 2010, announced her resignation effective Sept. 1. During her five years as the federal Justice Department's local prosecutor, the former corporate lawyer became the only local official I ever saw mocked in effigy.

A ten-foot-tall Haag caricature was a regular sight at protests in the Bay Area in 2012 and 2013. When not in public, the Haag effigy lived at cannabis industry trade school Oaksterdam University, one of the many marijuana businesses to suffer under Haag. Oaksterdam was lucky: the business stayed open after a federal law enforcement raid.

The same can't be said for the estimated 600 dispensaries across the state that closed during a coordinated crackdown led by Haag and her counterparts in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego.

Legal experts praise Haag's record as an even-handed, effective, and scandal-less prosecutor who went after giants like PG&E, Wal-Mart, and CalPERS with success. Cannabis, they say, was an extremely-limited sideshow. “She got Wal-Mart to plead guilty to criminal charges — she didn't prosecute anybody for medical marijuana,” said Rory Little, a law professor at UC Hastings. “I thought Melinda was amazingly gentle on that issue.”

Meanwhile, Haag's former picketers — many of whom are now locked out of the rapidly-growing cannabis industry — are celebrating her exit with predictable gloating. “Ding dong, the witch is dead,” said Cathy Smith, former proprietor of SoMa dispensary HopeNet, one of a dozen San Francisco dispensaries to close after receiving a threatening letter from the U.S. Attorney's office (and one of several people to utter those same words to SF Weekly). Reason magazine went as far as to call Haag, who won an award from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in 2003, a “loathsome drug warrior.”

Vilifying only Haag for the crackdown isn't fair. It's almost certain that she and the other U.S. attorneys took direction from Washington, where alarmed Obama officials viewed the massive growth in the unregulated California marijuana trade as a political liability for the president.

Further, Oaksterdam was the only legit cannabis business to suffer a military-style raid; everyone else was shut down with a letter sent via certified mail.

At the same time, cartels and other crooks are still growing marijuana in national forests, property forfeiture actions are still pending against dispensaries in Oakland and Berkeley (one botched forfeiture in San Francisco ended last year), and recreational cannabis in California is a near-inevitability.

If weed was a sideshow, why get involved in the first place? That question has never been fully or honestly answered.

Each U.S. attorney had discretion as to who to shut down. (Haag's counterpart in San Diego, Laura Duffy, briefly flirted with extending her crackdown to news outlets that took advertising dollars from cannabis businesses.)

According to the DoJ, dispensaries were selected for closure because they were either too close to schools or somehow breaking state law. In every instance, no specific allegations of lawbreaking were made — and each dispensary was by all accounts compliant with local law.

Haag mysteriously picked some of the Bay Area's model dispensaries for closure, despite protest from state and federal elected officials. Vapor Room on Haight Street, known for providing services to veterans, was shut down. So was Divinity Tree in the Tenderloin, for being too close to a park that is to this day frequented by heroin and crack dealers.

This incensed mayors and members of Congress. Earlier this year, U.S. Reps. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) and Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) sent a letter to the Justice Department, inquiring why the DoJ was still pursuing property forfeiture actions against Harborside Health Center in Oakland and Berkeley Patients Group, filed by Haag in 2012 and 2013, respectively (a question also posed by an appeals judge).

Pursuing these cases would seem to violate the provision, snuck into the Cromnibus spending bill in December, which stripped the DoJ of funding to meddle with state-legal marijuana businesses.

Under Haag, elected officials were threatened with jail time for daring to try to regulate state-legal marijuana businesses. In 2010, the Justice Department warned Oakland officials, eager to turn around their struggling city with cannabis sales tax cash, that the Controlled Substances Act would be “vigorously enforced” if California voters passed Prop. 19.

Her efforts also killed off an innovative effort to regulate outdoor cannabis cultivation in Mendocino County. There, Sheriff's deputies began inspecting and marking cannabis gardens as law-abiding with zip-ties. In fall of 2011, federal agents raided the zip-tied garden of medical cannabis provider Matt Cohen, cut down his 99 plants, and then threatened local officials, including the sheriff and Board of Supervisors, with legal action if the regulation program continued. It was canceled, and with it went efforts to regulate outdoor marijuana cultivation, which is today blamed for draining streams and killing fish.

In this, dishonesty emerges. At times throughout the crackdown – and again in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News after her resignation was announced – Haag insisted that the “limited” crackdown was fueled by “community concerns.”

She repeated this assertion even after mayors and members of Congress asked her to stop. No evidence was ever presented; a FOIA request I filed for these “concerns” was denied, citing pending legal action.

If there were concerns, the loudest ones was that this was not an issue the Justice Department should pursue, even in a limited fashion.

Haag does not deserve to be remembered as a monster. But on the drug war, she made questionable moves that have resulted in little more than the loss of jobs and tax dollars.

If cannabis was a sideshow, it was one she should have sat out.

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