Feds crack down on "new California gold rush"


If you live in one of the 9 Western states where marijuana has been legalized for medical use, you may have noticed that there suddenly seem to be an awful lot of bright-faced, completely healthy twenty-somethings who claim to have chronic pain or glaucoma. While many people use the drug to help deal with real, serious ailments, it's no secret that getting the card that gives legitimate access to it can be a joke -- or to be blunt, that much "medical" use is actually recreational.

Unsurprisingly, the feds -- who still consider pot a Schedule I drug (that is, the very illegal kind) -- now appear pretty tired of being the butt of that joke. On Oct. 7, California's four US Attorneys held a press conference to announce a coordinated assault on the medical pot business,  targeting dozens of dispensaries and farms across the state -- by far the nation's largest supplier of domestically grown marijuana. The attorneys' message was mostly unequivocal: Medical marijuana has become a cover for massive drug trafficking operations illegal under federal law, and "we are serious," said Sacramento-based US attorney Benjamin Wagner, "about enforcing federal law."

The move is the latest and most decisive the US Department of Justice has taken this year to reverse its 2009 announcement that it wouldn't focus its limited resources on prosecuting pot-users, suppliers and growers who were in compliance with state law. That position helped facilitate a literal explosion in the pot business, with proprietors, the US attorneys alleged, making money hand over fist. Los Angeles-based US Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said one criminal case unsealed last week sought forfeiture of nearly $15 million from one pot business -- "a conservative estimate" of earnings from just eight months. Those kinds of profits threaten public safety because they lead to robberies and other crime, the attorneys said. They also violate California's medical marijuana law, said San Francisco-based U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, which requires that dispensaries be nonprofits:  "The department never intended to shield commercial marijuana growth from federal prosecution."

"We will not use our limited resources against people with cancer or their caregivers," but rather large scale operators, Haag clarified.  In her Northern California district, for example, the feds are going first after dispensaries near schools and parks and other "places where children play." Haag cited several environmental and social impacts from the industry as additional justification, including environmental damage from grows on both private and public land, including cut-down trees and pesticide pollution in streams.

It's unclear just how far the more heavy-handed approach will reach -- so far, a lot of the action has manifested as letters warning that property may be seized and criminal charges filed if operations do not cease -- or what it means for communities that have tried to regulate medical marijuana. As contributing editor Matt Jenkins reported in his cover story "Ganjanomics" this summer, local governments like Humboldt County have been actively seeking ways to bring the business, which is a major economic driver, out of the shadows and into the realm of legitimacy, with permits, fees, and perhaps even a tax structure, all to help reduce the industry's impacts and divert some of its considerable revenue into starved government coffers. As Jenkins reported, the US Attorneys Office has recently made veiled threats of legal action against those who pass laws that facilitate what the feds consider criminal activity. And during the press conference, Haag cited an October 4th ruling in which a state court of appeals struck down permitting and renewal fees and other measures in Long Beach's medical marijuana ordinance because they were preempted by federal law. (Interestingly, a patient who ran a medical marijuana collective brought the case to avoid the fees; now the city attorney says the ruling could lead the city to give up and ban collectives altogether...oops).

Despite such warnings, the federal attorneys also repeatedly emphasized that their resources are limited and so will be carefully directed. It's possible that Humboldt and others are banking on being rather low on the totem pole of federal priorities. The county has continued to develop regulatory schemes despite federal warnings. And just days before the press conference, the Eureka City Council approved only minor changes to its own medical marijuana ordinance, passed in 2010, despite Haag's direct warning to the city that its " 'creation of a licensing scheme that permits large-scale industrial marijuana cultivation, processing and distribution' (might lead) the U.S. Attorney's Office (to) consider taking action, including pursuing injunctions, fines, criminal prosecutions and forfeitures," according to the North Coast-based Times-Standard. As Daniel Rush, director of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union's medical cannabis division, pointed out to the council:

...though the federal government has sent numerous letters, it has yet to take any legal action against any of the many municipalities that have permitted medical marijuana dispensaries and grow operations. ”There's never been a prosecution attached to any of those letters coming from the U.S. Attorneys."

Sarah Gilman is High Country News' associate editor.

Medical marijuana leaf image courtesy Flickr user Spot Us.

Oaksterdam University image courtesy Flickr user Cannabis Culture


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