Hard to believe it's been only two years since Attorney General Eric Holder shocked -- and relieved -- California's medical marijuana users when he said the federal government had no interest in prosecuting state-legal cannabis activities. The Bush Era was over -- no more doors kicked in by Kevlar-clad storm troopers or cancer patients dragged into court for six plants.
There have been indeed fewer boots through doors, but it appears the federal government's goal hasn't changed -- merely its tactics.
This year alone, the Justice Department has imprisoned a growing number of state law-abiding growers and dispensary operators. The Internal Revenue Service has determined that dispensaries can't claim the cost of their product on their taxes; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decided medical marijuana users can't use guns; every major financial institution has closed down medical marijuana-related accounts, leaving dispensaries with no banking options, and just this week, a cease-and-desist letter from U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag showed up in some dispensaries' landlords' mailboxes. It informed them that their properties could be forfeited and their tenants could be thrown in prison for 40 years unless the dispensaries close.
Welcome to the new war on medical marijuana, waged by lawyers and accountants instead of police.
According to a copy of Haag's letter obtained by SF Weekly
, all the dispensaries told to shut down or be seized within 45 days are within 1,000 feet of a school. That's perfectly legal under state medical marijuana law, but subject to a federal penalty enhancement, which was passed to punish street dealers operating near schools
, parks, colleges, and a variety of other public spaces.
Haag throws down the gauntlet on both the dispensary operators and their property owners. "Violation of the federal law referenced ... is a felony crime," Haag wrote "An owner of real property with knowledge or reason to know of illegal drug sales on real property that he owns or controls may have his interest in the property forfeited without compensation."
In San Francisco, dispensaries opened since the 2005 Medical Cannabis Act must be 1,000 feet away from a school, but there are a number of dispensaries which opened their doors prior to the law, and are ergo "grandfathered in." Landlords for at least three of these dispensaries -- those of 208 Valencia Caregivers, Mr. Nice Guy, and Medithrive -- received Haag's letter, according to sources.
Dispensaries in Marin County and Sacramento also received the letter, according to NORML. One, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana
, is the state's oldest dispensary, and is subject to penalization under the federal law Haag cited because it's within 1,000 feet of a park, NORML said.
Jack Gillund, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney, said the office has no comment. Haag could not be reached.
To the local medical marijuana community, these new set of tactics are more "passive aggressive" than the broken-door cowboy policy of the Bush days. Yet in many ways, they're more effective. "If you can't declare your business expenses on your taxes, and if you can't open a bank account, how can you run a business?" asked one local attorney specializing in medical marijuana, who asked not to be identified.
Doing it this way also robs the medical marijuana patient community of its best offense: Public outrage. With no raids, no protest or photo opportunities present, "They've systematically changed their approach -- probably after talking to a PR professional," the attorney added.
It appears no local dispensaries have yet taken any action on the Haag letter. Brendan Hallinan, an attorney representing one of the affected dispensaries, said he hoped to contact Haag's office before commenting to local media.
In a news release issued Wednesday, California NORML declared that the Obama Administration had ramped up its war on medical marijuana.
"It's an outrageous abuse of law enforcement resources for the DOJ to use property forfeiture to enforce meddlesome, nanny-state regulations," Cal NORML Director Dale Gieringer said
. "The federal government has no business dictating local zoning decisions. No one has any problems with [the affected dispensaries] except the bureaucrats in Washington."
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