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State, feds at odds over pot shops

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Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 12:00 am

Attorney General Kamala Harris says new legislation in works to circumvent current federal crackdown

By Melissa Caskey / Special to The Malibu Times

In notices sent out earlier this month, federal law enforcement officials ordered Malibu’s two commercial marijuana dispensaries, PCH Collective and Malibu Collective, to cease operations within two weeks.

The federal government targeted dispensaries all over the Los Angeles area with asset forfeiture warning letters, according to a press release from the US Attorney General’s office in the Central District of California. Landlords who own any property housing commercial pot shops were threatened with lawsuits unless they complied with the letter’s demands within 14 days.

James Erickson, who runs Malibu Collective Caregivers, said last week the shop would be closed by the time The Malibu Times went to press. Erickson did not comment further.

The owners of PCH Collective declined comment for this story.

Proposition 215 — passed by California voters in 1996 — legalized the distribution of medical marijuana. In 2003, the state senate passed the Medical Marijuana Program Act, establishing a voluntary identification card system for medical marijuana patients. Despite the legality of medical marijuana in California, the U.S. Department of Justice has asserted that federal law trumps state law in cases of commercial marijuana operations.

“Federal law is supreme in this area, and federal law prohibits all activities related to marijuana,” said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney office in Los Angeles. “Our actions are being taken pursuant to federal law.”

The recent crackdown actually dates back to Oct. 2011, when the U.S. Attorney’s office began issuing asset forfeiture letters across the seven counties in California’s central district. Federal officials asserted that they were only enforcing the law, after dispensaries in California had proliferated in defiance of bans and zoning laws in local municipalities.

But the timing of the crackdown baffled many observers, who noted that the use of medical marijuana now enjoys broad support, according to national polls.

“From a political perspective, it’s hard to see how this serves Obama’s interest,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Los Angeles Times. “It feels like it’s being driven by law enforcement and anti-drug folks.”

Medical marijuana advocates in California slammed the intensified enforcement measures and suggested it could hinder access to the drug for people who need it.

“The concern here is that the intimidation factor will directly impact safe and affordable access for patients,” state senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) told the Los Angeles Times.

The latest round of letters and threats of lawsuits brings the number of targeted local marijuana dispensaries to 220.

Lynda Gledhill, a press secretary for California State Attorney General Kamala Harris, said the state government is not working with federal authorities on the commercial shutdowns.

The acceleration of the crackdown by a federal government led by President Barack Obama has created a delicate situation for California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Harris has been friends with Obama dating to before his time as a U.S. Senator, and served as co-chair in California during his 2008 presidential campaign.

Speaking last week at the Rosenthal Wine Tasting room on Pacific Coast Highway, Harris gave a nuanced answer when questioned by The Malibu Times about the issue.

“I am absolutely in support of medical marijuana,” Harris said. “I’ve personally known people who have been sick and have been helped by it.”

But, she added that she could see the point of the federal government, which has argued that many dispensaries are violating California law by operating as for-profit businesses.

“There was a lot of confusion and chaos at one point in Los Angeles. You had more dispensaries than Starbucks,” said Harris.

Michael Shires, an associate professor at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy, affirmed in an email to The Malibu Times that the f-ederal government’s power generally prevails when it comes to clamping down on local dispensaries.

“It is usually possible for localities to be more restrictive, but rarely more permissive,” Shires said. “If the dispensaries do not meet the letter of what has already been found permissible by the [federal] courts … then it is likely that only a court can redefine those boundaries and reverse the federal action.”

In a Dec. 2011 letter to state lawmakers, Harris outlined several issues she believes they must clarify in order to strengthen California’s medical marijuana guidelines.

“Nothing in Proposition 215 or the Medical Marijuana Program Act authorizes any individual or group to cultivate or distribute marijuana for profit. Thus, distribution and sales for profit of marijuana — medical or otherwise — are criminal under California law,” Harris said in the letter to legislators.

“It would be helpful if the legislature could clarify what it means for a collective or cooperative to operate as a “non-profit.” The issues … are defining the term “profit” and determining what costs are reasonable for a collective or cooperative to incur.”

At the end of her talk last week at the Rosenthal Wine Tasting room, Harris hinted that the issue was not yet settled. She promised protections of legitimate dispensaries are forthcoming via legislation Sen. Mark Leno is drafting, “so keep your eyes open this summer.”

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