Dellums seeks probe of 'threats' to pot sites

December 21, 2007

Kelly Rayburn, Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND — Mayor Ron Dellums has asked a long-time former colleague, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to investigate the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's use of "threatening letters" to target medical cannabis dispensaries throughout California, including at least one in Oakland.

The DEA has sent hundreds of letters to people who own property on which cannabis dispensaries are operating.

A DEA official called the notices a "courtesy" even though they threaten landlords with imprisonment and property forfeiture.

The DEA's focus on the dispensaries — and the city's response to it — highlights the discord in federal and state laws on marijuana: California voters approved Proposition 215, supporting medical usage, in 1996, but federal law outlaws marijuana. And the DEA has warned cannabis dispensary owners that relying on state law is not a valid defense against federal charges.

Dellums spokesman Paul Rose said the mayor was representing his constituents' interests in broaching the issue with Conyers, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

"The city of Oakland believes in compassionate care," Rose

said. "The people of California voted to support medical cannabis. ... The mayor was discouraged to learn of the DEA's actions, which were in opposition to the will of the residents of this city."

Dellums wrote in the letter, which was also addressed to Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the committee's ranking Republican, that Oakland has a "long history of successful regulation" of its four licensed dispensaries.

"The DEA's recent surge tactics, such as the dissemination of threatening letters to property owners and unrelenting raids that continue to place citizens in harm's way, undermine state and local authority, and jeopardize the integrity of state law," Dellums wrote. "We urge the House Judiciary Committee to expeditiously hold hearings and examine this very important issue."

A committee spokeswoman said she was not sure whether Conyers had yet received Dellums' letter. Conyers said earlier this year that he was concerned about the issue, but no date for any congressional hearings has been set.

In a prepared statement, DEA Special Agent in Charge Javier Pena said, "The DEA San Francisco Field Division Office has sent out letters as a courtesy to the landowners to inform them of the suspected marijuana distribution center operating on their property. The DEA is committed to enforcing our nation's drug laws and will continue to work to keep our neighborhood communities safe from drugs and the negative ripple effects they cause."

Some say the DEA's priorities are poorly placed. Dellums' appeal to Conyers followed a similar appeal by the City Council earlier in the week.

In a resolution requested by Councilmember Nancy Nadel (Downtown-West Oakland), a staunch medical cannabis advocate, the council voted to urge congressional hearings as soon as possible.

Oakland officials had hoped the city's regulation of cannabis dispensaries would keep the DEA away.

The city adopted new guidelines on cannabis in 2004, nipping a then-burgeoning medical marijuana market and limiting the number of cannabis dispensaries to four.

At least one of the four — the Coffeeshop Blue Sky, formerly called SR-71 Coffeeshop, in the 300 block of 17th Street — has received a letter.

Owner Richard Lee could not be reached for comment Friday.

Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, called the DEA's actions "outrageous" and "damaging."

"They're trying basically to get landlords to do their dirty work," he said. "They don't have enough agents to close down the dispensaries and they're trying to get landlords to do it for them."

Mirken added, "The wheels don't turn in Washington, D.C., as fast as we would like them to, but this does appear to have gotten Chairman Conyers' attention — and that's a good first step."

Conyers became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee following the Democrats' takeover of Congress following the 2006 election. Dellums served with him in Congress for 27 years.

"They've known each other for a long time and they have a very good relationship," Rose said.

Contact Kelly Rayburn at 510-208-6435 or krayburn@bayareanewsgroup.com.



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