The federal government is once again ramping up its war on medical marijuana in states such as California where it is legal under state law. They have always used asset forfeiture to threaten medical marijuana dispensaries, but the new strategy appears to combine forfeiture with state and federal laws that assign greater penalties to sales of controlled substances within 1,000 feet of schools. Dispensaries in San Francisco have already received warnings from the U.S. Attorney’s office, as reported by a local ABC affiliate:
Sultan Alkhraisat owns a medical marijuana dispensary in the back of a cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District. The pot club is half a block away from the San Francisco Friends School. In fact, there are several other cannabis dispensaries near Friends and two other schools.
Alkhraisat declined to be interviewed, but he did confirm that the owner of his building received a letter from the U.S. Attorney last week. It said, “there is a marijuana dispensary operating…within a prohibited distance of a school.” And that it “may result in criminal prosecution, imprisonment, fines and forfeiture of assets.”
ABC7 has learned that the same letter has been sent to many other pot clubs operating in Northern California…
The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to be interviewed, but a spokesperson said they are targeting dispensaries which are operating within 1,000 feet of schools.
California Watch explains how this new strategy could destroy the semi-legitimate medical marijuana industry in California:
The U.S. attorneys from California’s four federal districts are preparing to unveil in the coming days their latest effort to push a coordinated statewide marijuana enforcement strategy. That approach includes the possible seizure of land or buildings leased to marijuana operations that may be legal under state law but remain illegal under federal statutes.
William Panzer, an Oakland attorney who co-authored Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana in California, said the days are numbered for the current model for medical marijuana dispensaries.
“It’s an effective strategy because they’re basically saying to landlords, ‘If you don’t do this, then you lose your property, and we could also come after you criminally,’ ” he said.
The tactic stems from a February 2011 memorandum by the state’s four top federal prosecutors that outlines for the first time a uniform approach to enforcing federal marijuana laws in California. The document, reviewed by California Watch, offers guidance and insights into the thresholds for prosecution.
Initiated by the state’s U.S. attorneys, the statewide enforcement strategy places an emphasis on federal investigations that target “leaders and organizers of the criminal activity as opposed to lower-level workers.”
San Francisco attorney Brendan Hallinan, who represents dispensary operators and their landlords, including one who received a letter from Haag last week, said civil forfeitures have a lower threshold than criminal indictments.
“We don’t have anywhere to go if they impose federal law on medical marijuana collectives,” he said. “A lot of people are going to get picked off.”
The development is the latest in a series of actions taken by federal authorities to target the industry’s finances. Banks are cutting business ties with dispensaries, possibly under federal pressure. The Internal Revenue Service has hounded dispensaries, including Harborside Health Center in Oakland, seeking millions of dollars in back taxes.
“If we don’t get a change in the IRS ruling, every legal, regulated distributor of cannabis in the United States is going to have to go out of business, and patients will be forced back into the hands of criminals,” said Steve DeAngelo, the Oakland collective’s executive director.
Government officials know that if they can destroy the dispensaries’ finances through civil forfeiture, they don’t need to run the substantial risk of losing a criminal trial. This is just another way the federal government is employing forfeiture to sabotage state laws they dislike, undermining what little vestiges of federalism remain in this country. More on this story as it develops.