As part of the ongoing federal crackdown on medical marijuana in California, Melinda Haag, United States attorney for the Northern District of California, has set her sights on well-known dispensary owner and activist Richard Lee. Lee founded Oaksterdam University, which instructs people on how to grow medical marijuana, and helped fund California’s Proposition 19, which would have fully legalized marijuana in the state if voters had approved it in 2010. Last week, Lee was forced to relocate his dispensary Coffeeshop Blue Sky after his former landlord received a letter from Haag threatening “criminal prosecution or forfeiture of the property” if the dispensary was not evicted.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Lee is being targeted at least in part because of his advocacy for the reform of marijuana laws. As longtime drug law reformer Tom Angell observes in the article, “By sending a threat to Richard it seems like they’re trying to send a message to the movement…But I really don’t know what the message is besides ‘Be afraid; we know who you are.’”
The US Attorneys in California don’t need any more complex message than that. They want to cow reformers into silence, and they are using the law to bully those who dare challenge the status quo. Unfortunately, federal asset forfeiture laws are so broadly written that a determined prosecutor such as Haag could probably seize any piece of commercial property–not just medical marijuana dispensaries–she wanted and still operate within the law. The threat from forfeiture therefore extends well beyond property rights; when agents of the government can take property to squelch speech they don’t like, it poses a threat to the very notion of democracy.