Feds: Marijuana busts still possible

July 01, 2011

Marcel Honoré, Desert Sun

A new memo released this week by the Obama administration reaffirms federal authorities' right to target marijuana dispensaries — and those who cultivate and sell pot — regardless of state law.

The move could expose non-sanctioned medical marijuana clinics operating in the Coachella Valley to greater risk of law enforcement raids, Palm Springs City Attorney Doug Holland said Friday.

“We've always understood that the activity is illegal under federal law, and anyone who's engaged in that activity has to deal with that potential ramifications,” Holland said Friday.

Palm Springs is the only valley city that sanctions medical marijuana facilities. The other eight valley cities have banned them.

In a Wednesday policy memo to federal prosecutors, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said a 2009 memo by then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden did not give states cover from prosecution.

On Thursday night, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said that the medical marijuana statement by Cole does not represent a new policy, but rather clarifies the policy, as reflected in the recent letters by U.S. Attorney's Offices to officials in a number of states.

Palm Springs' 2009 medical cannabis ordinance strikes a balance between competing state and federal laws, Holland said. He added that he did not believe the city's policy puts Palm Springs at risk of action by federal authorities.

The Palm Springs law allows for three nonprofit dispensaries. But those medical pot facilities aren't the only ones in town.

For several years, Palm Springs officials have wrangled in court with other local medical marijuana clinics, which intermittently spring up and assert they have the right to exist under state law even if they're not sanctioned by the city.

Holland said those facilities face greater risk of federal prosecution because many of them operate commercially, instead of as the nonprofit cooperatives that state law allows.

Cole cites “an increase in the scope of commercial cultivation, sale, distribution and use of marijuana for purported medical purposes” as a reason for his memo clarifying federal law.

One non-sanctioned Palm Springs dispensary, The Holistic Collective, was among 16 sites raided in October 2010 by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies.

Holland said it was a commercial operation and ran a high risk of more raids, based on Cole's memo. THC representatives were unavailable for comment late Friday.

“THC has always strictly conformed to the guidelines established by the state attorney general's office,” its attorney, J. David Nick, wrote in an e-mail to The Desert Sun in October.

Two other unsanctioned Palm Springs facilities were compelled to shut down in the past two weeks, Holland said.

The website WeedMaps.com presently lists five dispensaries in Palm Springs that aren't sanctioned by the city, and six dispensaries in Thousand Palms that aren't sanctioned by the county.

In 2009, the Justice Department told prosecutors they should not focus investigative resources on patients and caregivers complying with state medical marijuana laws.

Cole's memo says that view has not changed, but medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access roundly criticized the policy statement Friday.

“It is disingenuous of the Obama Administration to say it is not attacking patients while obstructing the implementation of local and state medical marijuana laws,” Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, said in a statement.

“The president is using intimidation tactics to stop elected officials from serving their constituents, thereby pushing patients into the illicit market.”

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of marijuana, with programs in various phases of development.

The states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

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