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Bay Area Pols Slam Feds' Medical Marijuana Crackdown

A pair of Northern California elected officials last week urged the federal government to back off on its "senseless assault" on medical marijuana dispensaries. At the same time, they said they want to meet with federal officials to see what's behind the crackdown.

Stalwart supporters of medical marijuana state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) took to the microphones at a news conference at the State Building in San Francisco.

"I urge the federal government to stand down in its massive attack on medical marijuana dispensaries," Leno said in remarks reported by KTVU-TV. "California voters intended that patients should have safe and affordable access to medical marijuana," he said.

Leno and Ammiano said they are pondering new state legislation to regulate dispensaries, but added that such laws would be workable only if California legislators hear from the Justice Department that such regulations would have an impact on federal enforcement efforts. They said they hoped to speak with Justice Department officials in the next few days.

"To be successful legislatively, we would need some indication from the federal government that (the state legislation) would impact" the Justice Department offensive, Ammiano said. 

"Call the dogs off and let's sit down," Leno said.

The news conference came in response to the October 7 announcement by California's four US Attorneys that they are ramping up federal persecution of medical marijuana providers in the state. Even though California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996, the federal government refuses to recognize such laws.

While the Justice Department has said it is not targeting patients, it is clearly targeting dispensaries and medical marijuana grow operations, with DEA raids ongoing and threatening letters being sent to dispensary landlords in a bid to force them to evict their medical marijuana tenants.

At the press conference, Ammiano conceded that California has little recourse when it comes to federal interference in its medical marijuana program. "In the end, they'll probably do whatever they want," he said.

Now, the federal government needs to be convinced that raiding medical marijuana providers operating in compliance with state laws is not what it wants. President Obama had a chance to get that message when he visited California on a fundraising swing this week. He was met by organized protestors when he came to San Francisco Tuesday.

The Feds Can't Stop Medical Marijuana, CA Activists Say [FEATURE]

The ongoing federal offensive against medical marijuana production and distribution in California is weighing ominously over the state's billion-dollar-a-year medical marijuana business, but while the industry could take some casualties, patients could suffer, and the battle field could get ugly, the feds can't stop it, a trio of well-placed activist observers said this week.

medical marijuana protest, 2006 (photo courtesy ASA)
Despite the Obama administration's famous 2009 Justice Department memo saying it would not interfere with operations complying with state laws in states where it is legal, the federal government has been raiding medical marijuana operations at a pace faster than the Bush administration. This year, the administration has become evidently more hostile, with a range of federal agencies doing what they can to make life difficult.

The Treasury Department has been scaring financial institutions away from dealing with medical marijuana businesses, the IRS is exercising punitive tax policy decisions designed to run them out of business, and even the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms has gotten into the act, warning gun dealers that medical marijuana patients are "addicts" who can't legally purchase weapons.

Tax liens and banking hassles are one thing, but being confronted by paramilitarized DEA raiders, threatened with having properties seized, or being faced with lengthy federal prison sentences is a whole other category of hurt. And that's what really has California's medical marijuana community up in arms. Between threatening news conferences by federal prosecutors, dozens of warning letters to landlords going out, and a steady drumbeat of DEA raids, medical marijuana patients and providers are scared -- and angry.

"I haven't seen people so outraged since the days of WAMM and the Ed Rosenthal raids," said long-time California NORML head Dale Gieringer. "I'm hearing life-long Democrats say they can't vote for this -- unless Obama does something, he's going to lose a lot of support. I know people who gave a lot of money to his campaign last time who are sitting on their cash now."

That anger is taking to the streets, as well as the phone lines and the Internet. There will be a statewide protest at the federal courthouse in Sacramento as well as other federal courthouses on November 9, local demonstrations have already taken place in San Francisco and San Diego, with more scheduled around the state, and plans are in the work to protest President Obama when he visits San Francisco and Los Angeles next week.

"There's a lot going on," said Gieringer. "I can't keep track of it all."

Activists already held a White House call-in day on Tuesday, and Gieringer urged people to call their US representatives to urge them to support H.R. 1983, the States' Medical Marijuana Protection Act.

"That would solve this problem," he said. "We really need to focus on Congress, but we also need to try to get something from this administration."

Americans for Safe Access
(ASA), the country's largest medical marijuana advocacy group, is deeply involved in waging the counteroffensive. It has sent out email action alerts to members and is mobilizing on the ground and at the courthouse as well, said spokesman Kris Hermes.

"ASA and other stakeholders are holding protests throughout California," he said, "and we intend to continue to apply pressure through the federal courts. At some point soon, we will file an appeal on the federal rescheduling petition case, and we'll be going head to head with Obama on that issue. Because the Obama administration is drawing so much attention to this, something has to break. We hope it leads to a more sensible public health policy."

But despite the angst aroused by the intensifying federal campaign, and despite acknowledging the real suffering likely to result -- from patients being denied medicine to local governments denied revenues to otherwise law-abiding citizens being subjected to federal raids and prison -- advocates said the federal campaign was ultimately doomed to failure.

"It's a serious threat in the sense that it will have an impact on the number of dispensaries and growers across California, and that will translate into hundreds if not thousands of patients being denied their medication and forced into the illicit market," ASA's Hermes. "I don't think that's the intention, but it will certainly be the effect."

But, citing the Bush administration's 2007 threat letter campaign, when warning missives went out to more than 300 landlords, resulting in the closing of some dispensaries, Hermes said the feds were fighting a losing battle.

"They don't have the resources or capacity to follow through on their threats, so there will be an impact, but it will be temporary," Hermes said. "When Bush did it, dozens of dispensaries shut down, but now there are twice the number of dispensaries in the state that there were then. It will be difficult for the feds to have a lasting impact, which is not to say they're not trying. And they're mounting this campaign on the backs of taxpayers."

"We've been through this before," sighed Cal NORML's Gieringer, citing not only the Bush threat letter campaign, but also the 2002-2003 crackdown under then Attorney General John Ashcroft, and the 1998 Clinton administration lawsuit against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Co-op.

"Every time, we've seen some damage done and some retrenchment, but every time the industry has come back stronger than ever in a year or two. I'm not sanguine about it," he said, "just used to being outraged. The government has a bankrupt policy that it can't really enforce very effectively. A lot of good people could get sent to prison, but at the end of the day, they're just flailing around."

Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University, owner of one of Oakland's dispensaries, and the man who put his personal fortune into last year's Proposition 19, has spent years looking over his shoulder for the feds. This is just another twitch of the dying dinosaur's tail, he said.

"We're always worried," Lee laughed mirthlessly. "But in the end, we'll win. There is too much for them to take out everybody. There will be sacrifices, people will be hurt, but now we have an army to fight back. In the long run, this just pushes us toward legalization."

Oakland also has a friendly city government and a history of pro-legalization voting, Lee pointed out in an oblique warning to the feds. "Here in Oakland, we passed Measure Z with 65% of the vote, and that made possession and sales by adults and patients the lowest law enforcement priority," Lee pointed out. "Right now, we have six or so Measure Z clubs open. If they shut down the dispensaries, there will be a lot more of them."

Not only did Oakland pass Measure Z, which directed city officials to lobby for complete legalization, Lee pointed out, it also overwhelmingly passed Proposition 19.

"We're well on record for complete legalization, and the city needs the tax money more than ever," he said. "This is an ongoing battle between local governments here and the feds, and tax dollars is part of this fight. Right now, it's got us the worst of both worlds -- prohibition and taxation -- but hopefully one day we'll get taxation with legalization. There's certainly an incentive for local governments."

Landlords may tremble, dispensaries may close, people may go to prison. Medical marijuana and pot legalization supporters will fight in the trenches, though, and they are confident time and the tides are on their side. But only time will tell if they are right.

CA
United States

DEA Hits More CA Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

DEA agents conducted raids on two more California medical marijuana dispensaries Monday, according to local press reports. Monday's targets were the Medizen dispensary on Northgate Boulevard in Sacramento and the Central Valley Caregiver's Co-operative in nearby Stockton.

The raids are only the latest evidence of the Obama administration's ramped-up war on medical marijuana distribution in the Golden State. They come less than two weeks after the state's four US Attorneys announced they were aggressively going after not only dispensaries, but landlords and property owners. They also come less than a week after a DEA raid on Northstone Organic, a fully state- and county-law compliant medical marijuana grow and co-op in Mendocino County.

In Sacramento, a Medizen employee told local TV news that neither the dispensary nor its landlord had been the object of a threat letter from the feds, but that the business was forced to close without warning.

"I was supposed to open at 10am. They got here at 7:30. I heard... they came in and basically took all our stuff, seized everything, took all our cash and product and stuff and that's basically it," said employee Mike Amarao. "They just said they're shutting all the clubs down in Sacramento, that's all we heard."

An attorney representing several Sacramento dispensaries said that some were going out of business rather than weather the threat of federal harassment and prosecution. That's going to hurt the city, which instituted a dispensary tax in July. It was estimated that the tax would generate $2 million for city coffers, but without dispensaries that figure would become inoperative.

There are no details on the Stockton raid.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, Orange County NORML and Americans for Safe Access are gearing up for a Tuesday night protest in Lake Forest in Orange County, where eight dispensaries have been ordered to close by a landlord whose bank account has been seized by federal officials.

Activists there accuse local officials of calling in the feds to do their dirty work after their own anti-dispensary efforts were blocked in state court. The city had spent $600,000 in its failed legal efforts.

Federal agents Saturday handed out asset forfeiture notices to some of the dispensaries. As of Tuesday, five of the eight dispensaries had already closed, with the others reported to be closing by day's end.

CA
United States

DEA Raids California, Colorado Medical Marijuana Operations

Putting some law enforcement muscle behind this month's words of warning from federal prosecutors that a new crackdown on medical marijuana distribution was getting underway, DEA agents late last week raided a model regulated medical marijuana grow in Northern California, a medical marijuana dispensary in Southern California, and a medical marijuana grow in Colorado.

"The California marijuana industry is not about providing medicine to the sick," claimed Laura Duffy, the San Diego-based US Attorney at the October 8 Sacramento press conference. "It's a pervasive, for-profit industry that violates federal law."

But the operation raided Thursday, Northstone Organics in Mendocino County, has been touted as a model medical marijuana grow. It holds a Mendocino County sheriff's permit to grow the 99 pot plants seized and destroyed by the feds, pays an estimated $8,500 annually in fees to remain compliant, and has even had sheriff's deputies testify favorably about it in a state court case where Northstone drivers delivering medicine to patients were arrested in Sonoma County.

Northstone Organics founder and owner Matt Cohen told the Ukiah Daily News Friday that heavily-armed agents raided his home and property early Thursday morning, destroying plants and hauling off evidence, but not charging him with a crime.

"They destroyed our home and eradicated everything," Cohen said. "They came in, guns blazing. They calmed down and were pleasant at the end, but they came in with machine guns."

Cohen said the smash and grab raiders included six DEA agents, a state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement agent, and a Mendocino County sheriff's deputy, "who didn't know what he was walking into here."

Northstone is a strict cooperative, growing the plants it distributes to members in the area, as well as in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It is fully compliant with California's medical marijuana laws.

"If we're not legal, nobody's legal," Cohen said. "We actually are a legitimate not-for-profit corporation. We worked with the county to get where we are, and there are illegal growers all around us. We fell under what the US Justice Department said was the threshold for prosecution."

The message the feds are sending? "Go back underground, I guess; make our community a less safe place to be," Cohen said.

The Northstone Organics raid was "shameful and despicable," said Dale Gieringer of Cal NORML, which reported the raid as it was still going on Thursday morning. "The DEA is doing nothing but encouraging lawlessness and disobedience to the law, said Gieringer."This is a victory for the Mexican cartels."

A day earlier and several hundred miles to the south, DEA agents and Pomona police raided the Green Cross USA dispensary, seizing marijuana, marijuana edibles, and records. But unlike the Northstone Organics raid, the raid on Green Cross appears to have been instigated by local authorities, who called in the feds to help.

Pomona Police Capt. Paul Capraro told the Daily Bulletin that the dispensary owner and landlord had received threat letters from the US Attorney's office. The letters said "if they didn't close down they would be subject to criminal prosecution, civil prosecution, and property seizure," he said.

Pomona banned dispensaries with a March 2008 ordinance, and had cited the dispensary in March for operating without a business permit. The owner, Jeffrey Maul, was convicted of operating without a business license, but is appealing that conviction.

The joint city-DEA action sends a message to other dispensaries in Pomona, Capraro said. "Our message is simple, that dispensaries are not lawful businesses in Pomona."

But it's not just a local case, said DEA spokeswoman Sarah Pullen. "We seized contraband, but also gathered evidence for the ongoing investigation," she said, adding that arrests could be forthcoming and that the city and the DEA had worked together for months on the case.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, what originated as a local law enforcement raid against a medical marijuana grower who contracted to grow as part of a larger grow at Cherry Top Farms in Denver morphed during the day into a joint local-state-federal raid replete with carloads of DEA agents and US Attorney representatives.

"We are 100% compliant" with state medical marijuana laws, a Cherry Top Farms manager told Westword after the raid. "But when the feds walk in, they can do whatever the hell they want." Local police had issues with the contract grower who was the original target of the raid, the manager said. "They came to take care of him, but when they got here, they were unable to turn a blind eye, and they did a lot of damage," he complained.

When the first officers showed up late Thursday morning, "it was the Denver Police Department, and then it was the state Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division. Then there were the feds. When they got here, they decided they needed a search warrant for us, too," the manager explained. "They lined us all up and questioned us and took our phones and [state mandated ID] badges. Then they gave some of the option to leave, after they handed over their IDs. But a few of chose to stay, and we were forced to wait in a two-parking space area, probably 10 feet by 10 feet, from 11:00am to 11:00pm. They did let us go to the bathroom, but you definitely had to ask permission to take a piss."

The raiders cleaned out Cherry Top, the manager said. "They took all of our live plants, all of our medicine, all of our extracts, and all of our baked goods," plus at least one more thing. "We have these cute t-shirts, little tank-top titty shirts, and one of the female officers put one on and was dancing around. I said to one of the agents at the door, 'I'm not trying to be disrespectful, but that doesn't seem to be very professional.' And he said, 'It's been a long day. We're just trying to have some fun.'"

The t-shirt has vanished, the manager said. "It's not here. She took it."

After last week's threats from prosecutors in Sacramento, it now appears that the feds are backing up those threats with actions. The medical marijuana wars are heating up again.

Feds Threaten Medical Marijuana Advertisers

The Justice Department's revived offensive against medical marijuana distribution is expanding to include media outlets that advertise for dispensaries, a California US Attorney told California Watch in an interview this week.

2010 New York Times article about medical marijuana advertising
Last week, the state's four US Attorneys held a joint news conference in Sacramento to announce they were targeting dispensary landlords and property owners, as well as going after dispensaries that violated the prosecutors' idea of what was permissible. Those included dispensaries located within a thousand feet or schools or parks (a federal -- not state -- sentencing enhancement) and dispensaries that did too much business -- more than 200 kilograms in a year.

Now, radio, TV, print, and electronic media are to be added to the list of those threatened by the feds. Laura Duffy, US Attorney for Southern California, said medical marijuana advertising is the next area she will be "going to be moving onto as part of the enforcement efforts in Southern California."

Federal law prohibits advertising illegal drugs. Although medical marijuana is legal under California law, the federal government stands firm in its contention that marijuana is illegal -- period.

"I'm not just seeing print advertising," Duffy said. "I'm actually hearing radio and seeing TV advertising. It's gone mainstream. Not only is it inappropriate -- one has to wonder what kind of message we're sending to our children -- it's against the law."

Duffy said she would first be "going after these folks with... notification that they are in violation of federal law." She also none too subtly mentioned that she has the power to seize properties.

Federal law targets anyone who "places" an ad for an illegal drug -- not the media owner -- but Duffy said she was taking an expansive view of the law. "If I own a newspaper... or I own a TV station, and I'm going to take in your money to place these ads, I'm the person who is placing these ads," Duffy said. "I am willing to read (the law) expansively and if a court wants to more narrowly define it, that would be up to the court."

First Amendment, meet the war on drugs.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

RAND Pulls LA Marijuana Dispensary Crime Study, Pending Review

In the face of withering criticism from local law enforcement officials, the RAND Corporation has removed from its web site, at least temporarily pending review, a September study that found that crime increased when medical marijuana dispensaries closed down. That study concluded that there is "no evidence that medical marijuana dispensaries in general cause crime to rise."

The study was subject to immediate attack from local officials, particularly from avowed medical marijuana foe LA County District Attorney Carmen Trutanich and from the LA city attorney's office. Trutanich called the study's results "highly suspect and unreliable" and claimed they were based on "faulty assumptions, conjecture, conjecture, irrelevant data, untested measurements and incomplete results."

Special Assistant City Attorney Jane Usher and Assistant City Attorney Asha Greenberg, whose office argued in court that dispensaries bred crime when successfully seeking to limit their numbers, added to the pressure on RAND. "Until you publicly retract your work, we expect the RAND publication to be referenced nationwide, at incalculable avoidable harm to public health and safety," they hyperbolically wrote.

The RAND study examined crime reports for 10 days before and 10 days after the city ordered more than 70% of the city's 638 dispensaries to close in June 2010. The researchers analyzed crime reports in neighborhoods where dispensaries had closed and compared them to neighborhoods where dispensaries stayed open.

RAND bent to the pressure this week. "We took a fresh look at the study based in part upon questions raised by some folks following publication, RAND spokesman Warren Robak told Toke of the Town. "The LA City Attorney's Office has been the organization most vocal in its criticism of the study."

The study has been taken down for review, but not retracted, Robak clarified. "I don't have an estimate of when the review will be complete and the study will reappear," he said.

Americans for Safe Access, the nation's largest medical marijuana advocacy group, decried the intrusion of politics into the realm of science and urged RAND to stand its ground. "When will objective science on medical marijuana be honestly and thoroughly considered without the intrusion and constraints of politics?" the group asked. "As a decades-old institution, RAND should stand by its research and not buckle to political pressure."

Los Angeles, CA
United States

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