Financial Torture (Asset Forfeiture)

Richard Marino, 51, opened a cannabis dispensary in Roseville, California, a small city west of Sacramento, in January of this year, soon after Senate Bill 420 clarified the legality of such operations. Marino wanted to do everything by the book. He leased a brick building in Roseville’s historic downtown that met the guidelines adopted by the City Council to regulate cannabis dispensaries. (Distance from a school, etc.) He organized a co-operative, as per SB-420, in which documented patients named him their “caregiver,” entitling him to cultivate six flowering or 12 immature plants for each of them. Members’ paperwork was scrutinized and checked by the co-op staff. In June Marino, a former electrician, purchased a house on a five-acre spread in nearby Newcastle-zoned residential-agricultural- and proceeded to grow some 200 outdoor plants for co-op members. He had several hundred more under lights.

In late August Marino told the Sacramento Bee that his “Capitol Compassionate Care Co-op” had 1,000 patients and that he was growing only a tenth as much marijuana as he could under the law.

On Sept. 3 DEA agents raided him home and dispensary, seizing some 500 plants and $105,000. A few days later the DEA filed suit in federal court in Sacramento seeking forfeiture of Marino’s house and money, plus the building that housed the dispensary, which is owned by a Roseville attorney named Richard Ryan.

The forfeiture laws enacted by Congress allow the government to seize and claim property used to facilitate a federal crime. Forfeiture claims usually -but not always- accompany criminal cases. As of this writing Marino has not been charged criminally and no formal attempt has been made to close his business -although confiscation of his inventory and operating capital may suffice.

The DEA used federal forfeiture law in 2001 to seize the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center’s building, in which the city of West Hollywood had invested and held a second mortgage. The DEA has since sold the building for $1.25 million. The city is suing for remuneration.

The forfeiture move against Marino and his landlord has sent a shiver of fear through the medical marijuana community, especially growers and distributors with assets the government might covet. Landlords will undoubtedly become reluctant to rent to growers and dispensaries. In the days following the federal move against Marino, several cities that were debating guidelines for dispensaries have put the applications on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the Raich case. (In Raich, a case in which medicinal cannabis had been grown and consumed within California, the Ninth Circuit court of appeals ruled that the feds had no jurisdiction because interstate commerce wasn’t affected. Attorney General Ashcroft is taking it to the Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments in January ’05.)

Some who fear the feds’ forfeiture powers console themselves with the thought that Marino brought about his own downfall by ignoring his neighbors’ disapproval. The Aug. 28 Sacramento Bee story by Niesha Lofing quoted the neighbors’ complaints -barbed wire, security guards, night lights, kids inhibited from playing nearby- and Marino’s reiteration of his rights under state law. Lofing described the neighbors as “furious” and state and local officials as impotent to intervene. She called the DEA for a comment, and the timing of the ensuing raid suggests that her article may have roused them to action. A federal source told the Bee after the forfeiture suit was filed that Marino had “tugged on Superman’s cape.”

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Brenda Grantland, Esq., of Mill Valley wrote the book on asset forfeiture (“the Asset Forfeiture Defense Manual,” with Judy Osburn and Susan Raffanti) and runs the foundation that published it in 2001, Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR). “There’s nothing new about this,” she says about the Roseville situation, “but for a while the feds had backed off. Now they’re becoming more aggressive.”

The DEA was making forfeiture claims against landlords in the 1980s and early ’90s, says Grantland. “Their attitude was, ‘If we can’t stop drug dealing in the inner cities, we’ll put the responsibility on the landlords. We’ll just take their property, and we’ll benefit from drug dealing and we won’t have to go out and do any policing.'”

A spate of negative publicity led to the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA), championed by Rep. Henry Hyde, Republican of Illinois. Conservatives who believe in the sanctity of private property, “more than the liberals,” according to Grantland, expressed outrage over incidents such as an elderly couple losing their rental property because, without their knowledge or consent, tenants were dealing drugs, or the forfeiture of a motel whose owner could not know what guests did in their rooms.

The feds are also resuming a more aggressive approach, Grantland says, by seizing citizens’ property at “forfeiture traps” along the Interstates. “They’re in the same places in Louisiana and Florida that had them in the mid-90s,” she says. The victims get listed in 6-point type in full-page ads running regularly in the Wall St. Journal. A high percentage of them have Spanish surnames.

Grantland explains: “If they see a Latino with out-of-state tags, they know ‘boom’ whatever money these people have, we can take and they won’t be able to come back to fight it…. CAFRA didn’t change the standard it takes to seize property. It’s still probable cause and there’s no review of the probable cause. Probable cause can be: these people fit a drug-courier profile, they’re Latino, they’re from out of state. They’re traveling to or from a ‘source city’ for drugs. Every city in the United States is a source city. And if there’s enough money so that the person might contest the forfeiture, they’ll bring out a drug-sniffing dog which is guaranteed to alert to the money.”

CAFRA placed the burden of proof on the government to show at trial by a preponderance of the evidence that the asset was acquired as a result of illegal activity. Its proponents assumed the Justice Department would not prosecute when they knew they didn’t have enough evidence to prove a case. But in the real world, Grantland observes, the Justice Department is John Ashcroft and those whose assets have been seized tend to give up because they can’t find or afford an attorney willing to fight for its return.

“Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?” -St. Augustine


Rimonabant Becomes Acomplia

The California Cannabis Research Medical Group has changed its name to something more accurate and simpler: “the Society of Cannabis Clinicians.”

Rimonabant is changing its name, too, to “Acomplia.” The manufacturer, Sanofi (the world’s third biggest pharmaceutical company behind Pfizer and Glaxo), claims their new cannabinoid-antagonist drug will help people ACCOMPlish two difficult goals, weight loss and quitting cigarettes, without adverse side effects, if they’re COMPLIAnt.

Your correspondent scooped the Wall St. Journal and NY Times by a couple of weeks on the Rimonabant story. The Times Sept. 1 piece by Mark Landler started atop the Business Section and ran about 60 inches, conveying excitement of a kind not felt since the Prozac/SSRI launch. “‘It gives us another bullet in the gun,’ said Robert M Anthenelli, an addiction psychiatrist at the university of Cincinnati… ‘it is totally unlike other medicines.'”

Also sadly familiar was the downplaying of danger signs. “The obesity trials in Europe and the United States turned up some evidence of side effects, including nausea and diarrhea. But doctors involved in the tests said the effects were generally mild and transient,” wrote Landler, reassuringly.

The words “cannabinoid” and “antagonist” did not appear in his story. “Rimonabant works by blocking a certain kind of receptor, or trigger, that governs food intake and tobacco dependency. The receptors are in the brain, but also throughout the body, notably in fat cells. Among other things, they account for the sudden surge of appetite felt by people who smoke marijuana.”

No mention of the c-word in the Journal story, either, although Jeanne Whalen and Angela Cullen did report that some analysts foresee $7 billion in annual sales.

We can expect “Cannabinoid” to become as much a household word as “serotonin” did in the ’90s. The cannbabinoid-antagonist angle should ultimately help Sanofi peddle their pills, because millions of prospective customers know or have heard that marijuana causes heightened appetite. So buy the stock (if you’re flush and not too moralistic), but don’t take the drug.


Bryan Epis was among those enjoying the sunshine at the WAMM Fest in Santa Cruz Sept. 5. Epis, who had been cultivating for fellow patients in Chico, did two years of a 10-year federal prison sentence before getting out on bail last month (pending the Supreme Court ruling in the Raich case). He looked strong and trim, having lost 35 pounds doing 300-400 push-ups every other day in his cell at Terminal Island. “Most people in prison want to get big, I wanted to get lean,” he says.

While Bryan was strolling about looking cool in shorts and a tank-top, Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project was seated at a table wearing a tie and jacket on one of the hottest days of the year. A PBS camera crew was present and he was hoping to be interviewed, Mirken explained to your correspondent, who coveted the plaid woolen tie but thought the overall look was… too darn hot. The MPP seeks to project an image of respectability at all times. “Minimizing the harm associated with marijuana” is their slogan.

Angel Raich flew to New York last week to tape the Montel Williams show, along with other medical-mj advocates and a few prohibitionists, led by Drug Czarette Andrea Barthwell. The show is due to air Tuesday, Sept. 21. One of the guests, Irvin Rosenfeld, a Florida stockbroker whose marijuana comes in 300-cigarette cans from the federal government, says that Montel, an MS patient who knows first-hand that marijuana has medicinal benefits, made good use of the homecourt advantage.

An amicus brief filed on Ashcroft’s behalf in the Raich case by Drug Warriors Robert DuPont, MD, Peter Bensinger (ex drug czars) and Herbert Kleber, MD (Columbia University addiction expert), asserts that the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego “has apparently determined that future research, if it is to lead to a prescribable medical product, must involve purified cannabis administered through alternative, nonsmoked delivery systems, as well as synthetic cannabinoids.” The Drug Warriors’ brief cites the CMCR’s “Future Directions in Cananbinoid Therapeutics” workshop held in Paestum, Italy, this summer as if it provided evidence that the herb itself has no future. The brief also quotes our CounterPunch piece from July 17/18: “Advocates for herbal cannabis have criticized the CMCR for deviating from research involving ‘the crude plant that grows in the crude soil.'” We’re worse than tree-huggers, we’re dirt-grubbers!

FRED GARDNER can be reached at


Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at