The Crackdown on California’s Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

In a complete betrayal of his campaign promises and inaugural initiatives, federal prosecutors in the Obama Administration last Friday launched a crackdown on medical cannabis dispensaries in California. Welcome to the new world.

The ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign includes a warning that the targeted shops must shut down and cease operating within 45 days or face criminal confiscation of their property- even if they are operating legally under the state’s 15-year-old medical marijuana law.

Like the government once did with pornographic video shops, the tenant is not the only party targeted. Landlords are simultaneously admonished that their leases violate federal regulatory guidelines, and they are complicit in the criminal enterprise. They are advised that they must terminate the lease and take steps to evict the tenants, or the government will seize their entire shopping centers for acquiring illegal assets as the fruits of a criminal enterprise.

Some of the letters prosecutors sent out also warned the state and city-licensed dispensaries of enhanced federal penalties if their businesses happened to be within a thousand feet of schools or playgrounds.

Four US Attorneys gathered on Black Friday in Sacramento to announce the ultimatums delivered to at least 38 dispensaries throughout the state. Declaring that federal law “took precedence over state law and applies regardless of the particular uses for which a dispensary is selling and distributing marijuana,” they told the proprietors they just don’t give a damn what laws California has enacted and whether their dispensaries are in compliance with local municipal ordinances or not.


“We are the kings,” they said, and you shall do our bidding or ‘go directly to jail.’ Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. To them, it was a game, and they were the game makers.


The US Attorneys, wearing suits invisibly emblazoned with a hammer and sickle, announced that any dispensary that remained open “would be subject to criminal prosecution and civil enforcement actions,” including the seizure of real and personal property. No discussion. No debate. Just jail and seizures, fines and forfeiture.


The position is a 180-degree reversal from the Obama Administration’s optimistic and inaugural promises implying that those dispensaries, which were in compliance with state law, could operate without fear of federal intrusion. You could almost see it coming.


The new road follows the appointment of a drug czar who was not sympathetic to dispensaries. It follows months of threats and warnings from local federales. And it follows months of IRS audits and bank actions refusing dispensary accounts.


The Obama Administration’s false promises were a misleading ruse, lulling supporters to expand and enhance dispensaries throughout California. This law enforcement initiative reflects that Obama was either never supportive of medical marijuana efforts or is transparently powerless to supervise the very US attorneys he has appointed.


Either way, this new legal initiative will send a message not only to the sixteen states that have enacted medical marijuana laws. It will intimidate and warn others not to even try. Threatened municipal officials will see what is happening in California and back off everywhere else. Prohibition has returned, in a big, federal way. Thanks, Mr. President.


To his credit, Rob Kampia, Executive Director of the Marijuana Policy Project, was one of the first persons to condemn the administration. He published a column in the Huffington Post entitled: “Obama- From First to Worst on Medical Marijuana.”


In March 2008 Gary Nelson, editorial page editor at southern Oregon’s Mail Tribune, interviewed Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who at the time was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. When Nelson asked Obama about federal policy regarding Oregon’s medical marijuana law, which had been approved by voters a decade before, Obama declared, “I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue.”  Oh, really?


Two months later Obama added that he would stop the DEA’s raids on growers since “our federal agents have better things to do, like catching criminals and preventing terrorism.” As columnist Jacob Sullum wrote yesterday, Oregon medical marijuana growers who were raided by the DEA last weekend probably are wishing that guy had been elected president.


As for those enterprises which legitimately invested their life savings in starting a ‘cannabiziness’ which complied with local and state regulations, and offered a public service to those who found marijuana had legitimate medical uses, well they are just damn well out of luck. Who ever said the government was going to be fair? Who ever believed the government could not be ruthless?


“We are currently zoned correctly, we are in a discrete location not near any schools,” said Chris Morganella, who is on the board of directors for Capitola Healing Association in Santa Cruz. “I cross my fingers and hope our landlord doesn’t get that letter, because then he’ll want to break the lease. But I signed a five-year lease, and that will have to play out in court too.” It does not matter what you signed Chris. You are playing Lotto with your freedom. Tomorrow could come, and tag, you are it.


The government says they are targeting the larger establishments, which meet ‘threshold’ requirements. They say they want to arrest international traffickers as opposed to lower-level workers, but you can’t trust anything they say. They say they want to speak with one voice and maintain a statewide ‘measurable standard’, which inhibits commercial distribution and drug trafficking for profit. They think their motives are noble but their measures are only going to scare off the sickest of the sick and the neediest of the needy. The smallest businesses are hurt by their effort.


The limousine and laptop liberals who come out and defend the US attorneys will say that these were not medical establishments anyway, just veils for illegal distribution centers. The truth is all distribution should be legal anyway.


The truth is that in ballot after ballot and state after state the citizens of America, from students in colleges to baby boomers wondering where their 401k’s went, are thoughtfully voting to reform marijuana laws. We just have an intransigent federal government, ineptly governed by misguided law enforcement officials, who can’t or won’t hear the voice of the people singing- or smoking, as the case may be. We are the cast of Le Mis, and our voice is of angry men who have to rise and rise again. Just pass the vaporizer in the meantime.


As the dispensaries close under the threat of enforcement action, the growers and cultivators will go underground again. The buyers and dealers will go back to the streets. But Marijuana, Pot, Cannabis, and Weed will not go away.

What will go away is the potential revenue stream lawful distribution could have generated, the public safety regulation would have brought, and the access medical patients so desperately need.


Marijuana prohibition as a policy has failed, and our government, led by a man who has openly admitted smoking marijuana in his past, has betrayed us once again. Maybe a million-man marijuana march on the White House is what we need next. Occupy That.

Norm Kent is a Florida attorney and member of the NORML Board of Directors.
He can be reached at norm@normkent.com.



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Norm Kent, a Fort Lauderdale attorney, is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of NORML.

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