Feds and Local Cops Conspire to Put Medical Marijuana Sales Out on the Streets


This is part two of a three-part series:

Part one: US Attorneys Turn to Intimidation in a War on Medical Marijuana

Part three: Trailblazing Medical Marijuana Cooperative Confronts Uncertain Future

California’s four U.S. Attorneys are waging their war on medical marijuana without winning a conviction, bringing a case to trial or even filing criminal charges. They find that strong-arm tactics work better.

Using a legal maneuver called civil asset forfeiture, they are seizing cash, cars and businesses – without the need of proving guilt or innocence in court.

You are considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But this doesn’t even come up in a civil asset forfeiture.  It’s the weapon of choice of the four federal prosecutors in California, where they strong-arm commercial landlords into evicting marijuana dispensaries and caregivers by threatening to take all they own. It’s a cheap, effective solution that keeps controversial medical marijuana prosecutions out of the courts, and it has the added benefit of turning the presumption of innocence on its head: the landlords must prove that they didn’t know about the alleged criminal activity in order to save their forfeited property.

Since the U.S. Attorneys announced their coordinated crackdown in October 2011, civil asset forfeiture warnings have shuttered hundreds of dispensaries, including the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, which was the oldest in the state. U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag sent a letter to the Marin Alliance’s landlord last November, threatening “criminal prosecution, imprisonment, fines and forfeiture of assets” unless he evicted his tenant.  

The landlord served the Marin Alliance with an eviction notice, but the dispensary resisted, and the matter ended up in a local court. Yet even as the landlord was working to comply, Haag’s office initiated the forfeiture anyway and the Marin Alliance closed for good in December. 


Money Drives Raids and Seizures

Though it’s the federal government leading the charge against medical marijuana, local California cops are also getting a piece of the asset-forfeiture action through a practice known as equitable sharing.

Matt Kumin

Under equitable sharing, local police can request the help of federal law enforcement agencies in conducting raids and seizing assets for forfeiture. By doing this, the local cops get two huge benefits, the first of which is more money: By bringing the action under federal law, local precincts can claim up to 80 percent of the forfeiture proceeds, whereas their take would be capped at 65 percent if they operated under California law.

Even more importantly, equitable sharing allows local California police to conduct raids based on federal laws, muscling aside state laws that were designed to protect Californians from overzealous property seizure. This loophole enables local governments that are hostile toward the medical marijuana movement to shut down dispensaries in defiance of state law and make a tidy profit in the process.

“The DEA doesn’t have a lot of agents in California — maybe 100 or so,” said Matt Kumin, a civil rights attorney who has brought constitutional challenges to all four U.S. attorneys targeting medical marijuana in California. “They don’t initiate investigations. Most of that is done by the local law enforcement agencies, which are essentially deputized to work with the feds in this effort, as they’re getting federal funds for drug interventions.”


Can’t Live Without It

Equitable sharing is a cash pipeline for the agencies that take full advantage of the end-runs around their state laws. It’s a widely accepted practice nationwide; Sheriff Bill Smith of Camden County, Georgia made headlines and was subjected to a federal grand jury investigation in 2008 over the millions of dollars his office made through equitable sharing. The funds were used to buy a $90,000 Dodge Viper, build a $3 million sheriff substation, and pay wages to jail trustees, among other things.

But local precincts are living off the federal funding. According to a report by The Institute for Justice, some law enforcement agencies have become dependent on asset forfeiture funds for their operational survival. A survey of 770 police managers and executives found that nearly 40 percent agreed that asset forfeiture is “necessary as a budget supplement.”

“Forfeiture funds are what now run many of these agencies,” said Kumin. “They help expand agencies that would otherwise be facing budget shortfalls, and in some cases they fully fund entire task forces that are essentially dedicated to going after even more asset forfeiture funds.”

The Institute for Justice report also notes that the U.S. Department of Justice policy manual contains language that  coaches local police to use equitable sharing to circumvent state laws. According to its “Request for Adoption of State or Local Seizures” form, bringing a forfeiture action under the federal umbrella may be appropriate if “state laws or procedures are inadequate or forfeiture experience is lacking in the state system with the result that a state forfeiture action may be unfeasible or unsuccessful.” It’s a convenient arrangement: the feds get someone else to do their dirty work, and local cops get a bigger cut of the cash. Everybody wins, except the victims of these intimidation tactics.

What do you think of the federal government’s use of civil asset forfeiture to shut down California’s medical marijuana establishments? Let us know in the comments section below.

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