Releaf Magazine

Department of (In)justice

California Medical Marijuana Crackdown Ramps Up As More Dispensaries Targeted For Closure

haagSAN FRANCISCO -- Several dozen protesters gathered in downtown Berkeley Wednesday afternoon to fight federalhag action against one of California's oldest medical marijuana dispensaries, targeted for closure by the Justice Department.

"The Obama administration's ongoing war against patients is despicable and has to stop," Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, told the crowd. "This is a mean, vindictive move aimed at shutting down one of the oldest and well-respected dispensaries in the country."

U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag on Friday served pot shop Berkeley Patients Group with a lawsuit that attempts to seize the property and ultimately shut the business. Berkeley officials say the dispensary provides significant benefits to the community.

"BPG has served as a national model of the not-for-profit, services-based medical cannabis dispensary," Berkeley City Council member Darryl Moore said in a resolution opposing the lawsuit. "They have improved the lives and assisted the end-of-life transitions of thousands of patients; been significant donors to dozens of other organizations in our city; [and] shaped local, state and national policies around medical cannabis."

Berkeley Patients Group received a letter from Haag last year, claiming its location within 1,000 feet of a school broke state law. The operation later relocated, and the lawsuit makes no mention of its proximity to schools or violation of specific laws.

Dispensaries throughout northern California have received similar legal threats from the U.S. attorney over the past few weeks. San Francisco's Hemp Center and seven pot shops in San Jose all received letters warning of property seizures and prison sentences should they not shut down. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is reportedly investigating a handful of other San Francisco dispensaries.

"This round of U.S. attorney threat letters is just the latest move to undermine President Obama's repeated pledges that his federal government would respect state medical marijuana laws," Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell told The Huffington Post. "This is part of a continuing effort to try to intimidate the legal marijuana industry out of existence."

California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes when voters legalized Proposition 215 in 1996. Since then, medical marijuana has flourished statewide, generating upwards of $100 million in annual tax revenue.

But marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Despite early promises to ignore states that had legalized it, the Obama administration launched an aggressive crackdown against California's cannabis operations in late 2011. Since then, hundreds of businesses have been forced to close and thousands of jobs have been lost.

In a further blow to the industry, the California Supreme Court ruled on Monday that cities have the authority to ban dispensaries outright.

Angell said he believes the crackdown comes from bureaucrats within the Justice Department who feel threatened by the growing national acceptance of marijuana. Washington and Colorado legalized recreational use last fall.

"Whoever is coordinating these attacks in the federal law enforcement apparatus is clearly terrified about what the increasing acceptance of a legal and regulated marijuana trade means for the drug war bureaucracy that employs them," Angell said.

A recent poll showed that a clear majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana if it would be taxed and regulated like alcohol.

Meanwhile, advocates said they hope to place a ballot measure that would legalize pot for recreational use before California voters in 2016. Elected officials, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, have expressed their support.

"It seems clear that California is on pace to legalize marijuana for adult use," Angell said. "Hopefully more politicians will soon sense which way the wind is blowing and get in front of this issue before voters leave them behind."

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Medical Marijuana Raids Not What Obama Promised, Panel Says

As federal raids on pot shops continue throughout the country, drug policy experts allege that President Obama and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have contradicted their earlier positions on medical marijuana. Cannabis policy experts and advocates from all over the United States convened in Los Angeles last week to discuss the current state of the reform movement. The latest Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) annual conference drew diverse opponents of the War on Drugs, including law enforcement, medical marijuana patients, needle exchange proponents, and drug legalization advocates.

In a specific session titled "State of the Movement: Whither Medical Marijuana?”, panelists and audience members discussed Obama’s campaign promises to end federal raids on medical marijuana patients and clinics in states where such use was legally authorized.

In a Mar. 22, 2008 interview with The Mail Tribune’s Editorial Page Editor, Gary Nelson, then candidate Barack Obama said in part:

"When it comes to medical marijuana, I have more of a practical view than anything else. My attitude is that if it's an issue of doctors prescribing medical marijuana as a treatment for glaucoma or as a cancer treatment, I think that should be appropriate because there really is no difference between that and a doctor prescribing morphine or anything else.” He then elaborated, "What I'm not going to be doing is using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue simply because I want folks to be investigating violent crimes and potential terrorism. We've got a lot of things for our law enforcement officers to deal with."

On Feb. 29, 2009 Attorney General Eric Holder said that he did not expect raids on medical marijuana clinics to continue. "He was my boss during the campaign, he is formally and technically and by law my boss now. So what he said during the campaign is now American policy."

On Oct. 19, 2009 the Department of Justice issued its now famous Ogden memo which announced that prosecutorial priorities should not target "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." Most observers believed that medical marijuana users and caregivers who complied with state law would no longer be the focus of federal prosecution.

Panelists at the DPA conference lamented that these campaign promises and DOJ overtures have been reversed by the actions of several US attorneys who have authorized raids on marijuana clinics, issued warning letters to state attorneys general in the 16 states where medical marijuana is currently legal, pushed for disproportionate taxation on marijuana clinics, and even threatened to target media who publish ads for medical marijuana clinics.

Panelists included:

Tom Daubert, Founder, Patients and Families United (Helena, MT)
Allen Hopper, Police Practices Director, ACLU of Northern California (San Francisco, CA)
Michael Kennedy, High Times Attorney (New York, NY)
Karen O’Keefe, Director of State Policies, Marijuana Policy Project (Washington, DC)
Steph Sherer, Executive Director, Americans for Safe Access (Washington, DC)
F. Aaron Smith, Executive Director, National Cannabis Industry Association (Phoenix, AZ)
Tamar Todd, Staff Attorney, Drug Policy Alliance (Berkeley, CA)

The panelists stated that the DOJ has not issued a formal statement announcing a policy reversal, a reason for the timing of the recent raids, or an indication that actions against medical marijuana clinics would escalate or cease.

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