DEA targets landlords in pot battle

July 25, 2007

William M. Welch, USA Today

The U.S. Justice Department is unleashing a potent new weapon in its battle against California’s hundreds of medical pot clinics, threatening landlords with arrest and property seizures for renting to tenants who flout federal drug laws.

Intensifying its crackdown on pot sales that are legal under California law but illegal under U.S. law, agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency executed search warrants Wednesday in raids on 10 marijuana dispensaries across Los Angeles.

As agents were moving in, Los Angeles’ city council voted 11-0 to tentatively approve a one-year moratorium on more medical marijuana stores, which have exploded in number in the past two years.

Federal officials estimate there are 400 storefront and office operations selling medical marijuana in Los Angeles and L.A. County, up from just 20 two years ago and more than double the number at the start of the year, DEA Special Agent Sarah Pullen says. Law enforcement officials contend the sales have become a source for recreational pot users.

“It’s clearly not about compassion or care at this point,” Pullen says. “It’s about money.”

The most serious threat to California’s voter-approved pot sales came in a letter last week from the DEA to 150 property owners or managers informing them that a tenant is operating a marijuana dispensary on the property in violation of federal law.

The letter warns that California’s pot law, approved as Proposition 215 a decade ago, “is not a defense to this crime or to the seizure of the property.” Landlords, the DEA warned, could lose their buildings and land and face felonies with 20-year prison sentences.

“It scared the hell out of my client,” said Barry Parker, attorney for property owner Kash Holdings LLC. It rents space to Karma Collective.

As a result of the DEA notice, Parker said Karma Collective had agreed to close and vacate its space within a month. He predicted many other landlords would evict.

“It’s just too risky a situation for a landlord to take on, at the same time potentially costly,” he said.

David Kestenbaum, attorney for Karma Collective, said landlords who get such a letter have no choice but to evict pot-selling tenants. “It will effectively, in my opinion, shut down the clinics that are open and force patients ... to again go back to buying it off the streets,” he said.

Supporters of marijuana for medical uses say it can relieve pain for people with cancer, AIDS and other diseases.

Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a pro-marijuana lobby, called the warning an “attempt by DEA to intimidate these operators and force these facilities to close.”

His group has not opposed the moratorium, reasoning it could be a step toward city regulations recognizing legal pot sales. He said the DEA’s timing appeared intended to shut down as many clinics as possible just as a city moratorium takes effect, preventing stores from reopening at another location.

L.A. Councilman Dennis Zine, sponsor of the moratorium, wrote DEA Administrator Karen Tandy on Wednesday protesting the focus on landlords. He asked “that you abandon this tactic.”

“Voters in California and in Los Angeles support the medical use of cannabis and want safe, well-regulated access,” he said.

Don Duncan, whose California Patients Group distributes medical marijuana from a store in Hollywood, said his landlord had not received a letter but felt threatened nonetheless. He said the store has been operating for a year and a half and sells to as many as 100 patients a day.

“It’s very disconcerting, frankly,” he said. “It’d be a shame to work this hard and be shut down based on intimidation. ... Right now we’re waiting to see what happens.”

Less than 24 hours after he spoke, Duncan’s dispensary was raided by DEA agents, Pullen said. Duncan did not answer his phone Wednesday.



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