Medical pot supporters cheer end of DEA raids

February 26, 2009

Josh Richman, Oakland Tribune

California medical-marijuana advocates are celebrating a verbal promise that federal raids on the state-law-abiding dispensaries have ended.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in a news conference on an unrelated matter Wednesday in Washington with Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michele Leonhart, said the raids — in many cases, searches and seizures without arrests — are not part of President Barack Obama's policy.

"What the president said during the campaign, you'll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we'll be doing in law enforcement," Holder said. "What he said during the campaign is now American policy."

Obama last year said he wouldn't be "using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue," a stance reiterated earlier this month by White House spokesman Nick Shapiro.

"Today is a victory and a huge step forward," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access. "I'm overjoyed to finally have a news conference with some great news."

Rather than spending a lot of time staving off these federal attacks, she said, groups like hers now can work in earnest with Congress and federal agencies to iron out conflicts between federal law — which still bans all use, cultivation and distribution of marijuana — with state laws such as California's permitting medical use.

Examples might include legislation to protect veterans' benefits or housing rights of people using the drug in accordance with state law, Sherer said.

In some cases, the DEA and federal prosecutors have written to dispensaries' landlords, threatening forfeiture of their properties unless they evict their tenants. That's what happened last month to Heather Poet's cooperative in Santa Barbara, causing Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, to write to Holder urging a halt to such tactics.

"I am just so grateful to her and to the Obama Administration that they are finally saying that they're going to stop this horrible "... travesty that has been happening to sick people throughout California," Poet told reporters Thursday.

It's still unclear what will happen to prosecutions already in progress, such as that of Charles Lynch, whose Morro Bay dispensary was raided in 2007 and who was convicted last year on marijuana distribution charges.

He's scheduled to be sentenced March 23, and federal prosecutors still seem intent on putting him in prison for at least five years.

Sherer said she hopes the new administration will set a new course in this and other pending cases.

"This is where we roll up our sleeves," she said. "The devil is in the details."

Marijuana dispensaries operating outside state and local law's bounds remain subject to prosecution.

For example, Oakland police last Friday raided the Lemon Drop Café on Telegraph Avenue, seizing firearms, marijuana and cash and arresting owner-operator Steven Smyrni, of San Ramon; the cafe does not hold one of Oakland's four city-issued permits for medical-marijuana dispensaries.

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