In a reprise of a tactic first used against Los Angeles and Sacramento area dispensaries, the DEA this week sent letters to dozens of owners of buildings leased to San Francisco dispensaries warning them that their buildings could be seized. Dispensary operators responded by filing suit in federal court to stop the agency, and a high-ranking congressman has promised to hold hearings on the matter.
Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, and currently, hundreds of dispensaries are operating in the state to provide marijuana to patients qualified under the state's admittedly loose law. DEA raids and federal prosecution have failed to blunt their growth, and the landlord letters are only the latest wrinkle in the agency's war on the will of California voters.
"By this notice, you have been made aware of the purposes for which the property is being used," said a copy of the letter sent to San Francisco landlords, signed by the special agent in charge of the DEA's San Francisco office, Javier Pena. "You are further advised that violations of federal laws relating to marijuana may result in criminal prosecution, imprisonment, fines and forfeiture of assets."
The letter gave no deadlines.
San Francisco once had as many as 40 dispensaries, although only 28 have applied for licenses under a city regulatory process that began in July. But dispensaries may also be linked to other buildings where medical marijuana grows or storage take place.
"The feds do as they please... (and) they've done it before," San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told the San Francisco Chronicle, adding he would not be surprised at a crackdown. "I would only hope they would coordinate with local law enforcement and that they are aware of the new regulatory system we have in place, and are sensitive to it."
Dispensary operators, however, were not quite so sanguine. A previously little known industry grouping, the Union of Medical Marijuana Providers, last week joined the Los Angeles area Arts District Healing Center in filing a federal lawsuit charging the DEA with extorting landlords. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to bar the DEA from sending any more threatening letters.
Dispensary operators and their supporters are also looking forward to hearings on the issue in the House Judiciary Committee. In response to complaints from California, last Friday, committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) announced he would hold hearings on the issue.
"I am deeply concerned about recent reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration is threatening private landlords with asset forfeiture and possible imprisonment if they refuse to evict organizations legally dispensing medical marijuana to suffering patients," Conyers said in a statement. "The committee has already questioned the DEA about its efforts to undermine California state law on this subject, and we intend to sharply question this specific tactic as part of our oversight efforts."
"When I saw Representative Conyers statement regarding the DEA's abuse of their power in order to thwart California's law, I knew that our legal efforts were beginning to pay off," said James Shaw, executive director of the Union. "The DEA has alienated too many citizens with their heavy-handed 'above the law tactics' for too long. We welcome all the support we can find in our efforts to ensure our rights are protected."
Steven Schectman, the Union's chief counsel, said he has contacted Representative Conyers' office in order to provide his staff copies of the litigation that was filed in both state and federal Court. "I am hopeful we can support the Judiciary Committee in any way possible. As a result of our research and investigation of the DEA's threatening letter campaign, in preparation of our litigation, we have become the most knowledgeable group, outside the DEA, who best understands the scope and import of their tactics. We are here to help."