US Attorneys Turn to Intimidation in a War on Medical Marijuana

Posted October 15, 2012 in Marijuana by

This is part one of a three-part series:

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

Part three: Trailblazing Medical Marijuana Cooperative Confronts Uncertain Future

Four U.S. Attorneys in California have used disinformation and intimidation tactics in an unwanted attack on California’s medical marijuana dispensaries. For the most part, the federal prosecutors have avoided the courts, where their targets would have a chance to be heard in a public hearing.

Instead the federal foursome has conspired to mail threatening letters to landlords who rent commercial space to the dispensaries. Rather than bring federal charges against the caregivers at San Francisco’s Vapor Room Cooperative, for example, the U.S. Attorneys went after the elderly immigrant widow who owned the Victorian mansion that was the dispensary’s home. They warned her in writing that she faced a lengthy prison sentence and the loss of her home — her primary retirement asset — if she did not immediately evict the Vapor Room, which had been a reliable tenant.

The prohibitionist prosecutors include four U.S. Attorneys:

  • Andre Birotte Jr. in Los Angeles
  • Laura E. Duffy in San Diego
  • Melinda Haag in San Francisco
  • Benjamin B. Wagner in Sacramento

They have mailed similar letters to the landlords of dispensaries throughout the state. Their campaign of strong-arm intimidation is cheap and out of public view, allowing them to force a dispensary out without giving the owner a public day in court. 


Three Lies from the Feds

It’s a covert way of waging an enormously unpopular bombardment on alternative medicine. According to a recent Mason-Dixon poll, three-fourths of Americans want the federal government to respect state medical marijuana laws. A scant 15 percent want to see the federal law enforced. 

California landlords aren’t the only ones being blackmailed and painted as accessories to drug trafficking. Banks and credit card companies have been intimidated with threats of money laundering charges for doing business with dispensaries, and media outlets are being bullied not to publish or broadcast their advertisements. The federal government also pursues dispensaries through the IRS, using relentless audits and the denial of business deductions as tools to make their operations cost prohibitive.  

When the U.S. Attorneys announced their crackdown on dispensaries in an October 2011 joint press conference, many medical marijuana advocates were caught off guard because they’d believed three lies.

U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr.

  • Three years ago candidate Barack Obama said he was “not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue.”
  • Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed this position for the Department of Justice. “What [Obama] said during the campaign is now American policy,” he said.
  • The Department of Justice stated in writing in an October 2009 memo from Deputy Attorney General David Ogden that the U.S. Attorneys “should not focus federal resources in [their] states on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

None of these policies have held true in California. The false assurances fooled the state’s medical marijuana providers, who invested heavily in the industry with the expectation that operating as not-for-profit cooperatives would insulate them from federal prosecution.

Less than two years later, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole reneged on the Obama administration’s promises in a new memo that stressed that “persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana … are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law” and “are subject to federal enforcement action, including potential prosecution.”


The Feds’ Extreme Position

Matt Kumin

“The marijuana stores and grow[er]s are commercial operations,” argued Thom Mrozek, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. “They may call the sale price a ‘donation,’ but that is just semantics designed to make them appear to be in compliance with state law.”

“We have yet to see a marijuana store that is operating as a true non-profit,” Mrozek said. “I’m not saying that we have looked at every operation, nor am I saying that there isn’t one out there, but I am saying that law enforcement has yet to see a true non-profit marijuana operation.”

Prohibitionist prosecutor Birotte revealed his most recent targets on Sept. 25, taking legal action against 71 dispensaries in Los Angeles County. In a message designed to spread fear, he said that “even those stores not targeted today should understand that they cannot continue to profit in violation of the law.”

The U.S. Attorneys aren’t even bothering to check if California dispensaries are in violation of state laws. While Holder continues the disinformation that medical marijuana caregivers who “act in conformity with state law” will not be “enforcement priorities,” Mrozek admitted that compliance with state law is not an actual factor in the U.S. Attorneys’ decisions on which dispensaries to target. 

“Since we started our enforcement actions last fall, we are not examining each marijuana operation,” Mrozek said. “Remember that our enforcement actions are taking place under federal law, which clearly prohibits the sale, cultivation and possession of marijuana. We don’t need to demonstrate a violation of state law.”


A Ruthless Catch-22

California civil rights attorney Matt Kumin says that the U.S. Attorneys’ interpretation of “profits” is off-base.

“For the feds to say virtually everyone is making a profit, that’s really not true,” Kumin said. “Reasonable compensation is explicitly allowed for the caregiver. You can fight over whether a salary is a hidden profit, but what most of these dispensaries are doing salary-wise is in line with what other non-profits of similar size are doing. If the federal position is that there can be no cash involved, that’s the most extreme position you can take on the definition of ‘non-profit.’”

The feds have created a ruthless Catch-22 to trap dispensaries. First they force them to use cash because banks and credit card processors have been blackmailed with threats of federal charges so they won’t let dispensaries accept credit cards. The feds have then used possession of large sums of cash as evidence of dispensaries’ for-profit status in several cases.


The Crackdown Continues

For the foreseeable future, the federal government will continue its campaign of crushing medical marijuana by threatening California’s business community outside the courtroom doors. But what remains to be seen is whether growing support for medical marijuana and outrage over federal interference will eventually translate into reform at the federal level.

“The more the feds touch this issue, the more they lose the public relations battle,” Kumin said. But so far, neither public opinion nor state law has swayed federal drug warriors from their bottom line.

How do you feel about the federal crackdown on California dispensaries? Let us know in the comments section below.



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