Feds Order California Pot Dispensaries to Close -- Is Washington Next?

October 06, 2011

Keegan Hamilton, Seattle Weekly

Federal prosecutors in California moved yesterday to shut down hundreds of medical-marijuana dispensaries across the Golden State, sending "extremely threatening" letters to the pot shops' landlords warning that they could face criminal charges and confiscation of their property if the businesses do not shut down in 45 days. The action, as the org/dynamic/stories/U/US_MEDICAL_MARIJUANA?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2011-10-06-16-20-34'>Associated Press reports, signals "an escalation of the ongoing conflict between the U.S. government and the nation's burgeoning medical-marijuana industry." And it has local cannabis advocates wondering if Washington will be the next target of the feds' crackdown.

For the past two years, federal law-enforcement officials indicated they would not prosecute dispensaries and growers so long as they kept in compliance with laws in the 16 states where medical pot is legal. But that policy went up in smoke in June when the Department of Justice issued a policy memo stating that medical-marijuana entrepreneurs could face prosecution for violating federal drug and money-laundering laws. The letters mailed recently in California up the ante even further, emphasizing that federal law "takes precedence over state law and applies regardless of the particular uses for which a dispensary is selling and distributing marijuana."

Asked whether Seattle dispensary owners should expect to soon receive a similar letter, a spokeswoman for Western Washington US Attorney Jenny Durkan e-mailed the same official statement her boss issued after federal agents raided several medical pot businesses in Spokane earlier this year:

"We never announce who or what we are investigating. The day before the Eastern Washington enforcement actions, those dispensaries thought they could operate without penalty. They were wrong. We have made it clear that we will not prosecute truly ill people, their actual caregivers or their doctors who determine that marijuana is an appropriate medical treatment. Many others are operating well outside that zone. The label "medical marijuana" cannot be used as a shield to hide drug dealing and other criminal behavior. No one should take false comfort from lax local laws or marijuana industry lawyers. They risk federal prosecution, property forfeiture and other penalties."

That lack of reassurance doesn't sit well with Ben Livingston, a board member of the Cannabis Defense Coalition, a cooperative that helps defend medical pot patients and business people under prosecution, including the dispensary owners targeted in Spokane.

"The U.S. Attorneys are independent to a certain degree but they enforce policies that come from up high," Livingston says. "I'm assuming those guys down in the Bay Area aren't the most conservative kind of folks. Regardless of what Jenny Durkan's personal opinion might be, she does enforce federal policies. My advice [to dispensary owners] would be what it was last year and the year before: keep it on the down low."

Meanwhile, advocates on the national level say that recent developments in California -- the first state to authorize medical marijuana 14 years ago -- are surprising but not particularly shocking. Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, the nation's largest marijuana advocacy group, says federal prosecutors have employed similar tactics in "at least 10 states over the past six months."

"This is the latest in a long string of actions by the federal government in several medical-marijuana states," Hermes tells Seattle Weekly. "It's anybody's guess whether the federal government is going to [send similar letters] in other states. I think their efforts up to now with regard to threatening letters and DEA raids in places like Washington state and Montana have been very successful in reducing, if not completely eliminating, the dispensary industry in those states. Fortunately, Seattle has been an exception to that."

Nevertheless, Hermes emphasizes that there's no guarantee the détente will last.

"It's difficult to say if they'll step it up from here," Hermes says. "But anything is possible."

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