Federal prosecutors are targeting medical marijuana dispensaries across California, warning them to shut down within 45 days or face federal criminal and civil penalties regardless of whether they are operating within state and local laws.
Prosecutors have sent letters to at least 16 dispensaries -- or their landlords -- warning them they are violating federal drug laws. There have been no reports yet of East Bay or South Bay dispensaries receiving the letters, although 12 in San Diego and a few in San Francisco and Marin counties have received them. The action marks a resurgence of the ever-present tension between federal law's blanket ban on marijuana and California's 1996 law permitting the drug's medicinal use.
The U.S. Attorneys for all four of California's federal districts have scheduled a news conference for 11 a.m. Friday in Sacramento to "outline actions targeting the sale, distribution and cultivation of marijuana in California." A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco didn't return messages Thursday, but a cannabis industry lawyer said he expects they'll announce a multipronged approach to squelch California's permissive stance on marijuana by any means necessary.
"What they're getting at is basically the Obama administration war on medical cannabis is exactly the same as the Bush administration war on cannabis," attorney Bill Panzer of Oakland said.
Panzer said these letters go hand-in-hand with Tuesday's news that the Internal Revenue Service wants Oakland's Harborside Health Center dispensary to pay $2.4 million in back taxes because it can't claim the same deductions as other businesses. "You've got a lot of things happening all at the same time, all trying to stem the tide of medical cannabis," he said.
Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee, who bankrolled 2010's unsuccessful Proposition 19 for recreational marijuana legalization, says the federal action could be the result of cities and counties limiting medical cannabis to a few large, permitted dispensaries rather than a network of smaller, private-membership clubs that could stay under the federal radar.
Oakland has allowed only four dispensaries; Lee owns one, the Coffeeshop Blue Sky on 17th Street, but declined to say Thursday whether he or his landlord have recently received a federal prosecutor's letter.
The Drug Enforcement Administration some years ago made similar threats to some landlords renting space to medical marijuana outlets, yet rarely followed through, Lee noted. But Panzer said the new letters strike a different tone, both because they come from the U.S. Attorneys, who have authority to pursue asset forfeiture in federal court, and because they set a 45-day deadline for compliance.
"That's a little different from what we saw before," he said.
Panzer said he has one of the most recent letters, but attorney-client privilege prevents him from sharing it or identifying its recipient.
Activists said they weren't aware of any notices received yet in the San Jose area. The San Jose City Council last month approved regulations allowing up to 10 marijuana collectives in a city now believed to have as many as 140, and requiring them to grow all their product on site rather than buying it wholesale from growers -- a requirement that some complained would invite federal drug raids.
Marijuana collectives complain the city's rules would effectively force all of them to close, and so they have launched a drive to collect the required 30,000 signatures of city voters needed to qualify a referendum to repeal the city laws.
Rich Robinson, a San Jose political consultant advising the city referendum drive, said the effort would continue unabated. He called the federal prosecutors' letters a "scare tactic to get as many clubs to close down as possible" and predicted it would fail because "there's too many to enforce."
San Jose City Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio, who led the city effort to regulate and tax medical marijuana shops, suspected the move stemmed from President Obama's concerns his administration's previous tolerance for medical marijuana in states that allow it may hurt his re-election chances. His predecessor, George W. Bush, and other presidents have strongly opposed state efforts to legalize marijuana use even for the sick.
"This is Obama freaking out about his re-election," Oliverio said. "It sounds like they reverted back to the Bush policy of zero tolerance."
The Justice Department issued an October 2009 memo saying that prosecution of significant drug traffickers remained a priority but U.S. Attorneys shouldn't focus resources on those acting in compliance with state laws allowing for medical use of marijuana.
Another Justice Department memo from June seemed to portend a crackdown, saying that dispensaries and licensed growers in states with medical marijuana laws could face prosecution for violating federal drug and money-laundering laws.
Keith Stephenson, director of the Purple Heart Patient Center -- another of Oakland's permitted dispensaries -- said he hasn't received a federal letter and didn't expect to.
"We are optimistic," he said. "We're really low-key, we're a small mom-and-pop (operation)."