Medical pot cooperatives sue feds over crackdown
November 07, 2011
Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle
Pot suppliers went to federal court Monday to try to halt the Obama administration's campaign to close down their dispensaries, saying the survival of California's medical marijuana law is at stake.
In lawsuits filed in each of the state's four federal districts, medical marijuana cooperatives, joined by patients and property owners, accused the Justice Department of violating an agreement to leave them alone if they complied with state law.
The department had pledged to the courts, and to patients and their suppliers, that "those who possess, grow and distribute medical marijuana in compliance with state law will not be prosecuted nor their property seized," the dispensaries' lawyers said.
They argued that the federal government had made a binding commitment to follow that policy in a settlement last year of a suit by a marijuana collective in Santa Cruz. The government is now breaching that settlement, and breaking the law, with its strategy of going after marijuana dispensaries by threatening to prosecute their landlords, the plaintiffs' lawyers said.
They are seeking injunctions prohibiting federal prosecutors from filing charges or seizing their property.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the suits. But department officials have emphatically denied that their new policy, announced Oct. 7 at a news conference by the four federal prosecutors in California, broke any legal commitments to the courts or promises to the public.
Following up on President Obama's campaign pledge to let states set their own medical marijuana policies, the department told federal prosecutors in October 2009 - in a memo quoted in the new lawsuits - that prosecution of seriously ill patients and their caregivers who comply with state law "is unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources."
Medical marijuana advocates interpreted that statement broadly to apply to pot dispensaries that operated with state and local government approval.
But recently, Justice Department officials have said they never meant to immunize suppliers of drugs that are banned by federal law.
At last month's news conference, the prosecutors said they had sent letters to owners of dozens of buildings warning them that they faced property forfeiture, and possible felony charges, unless they evicted the pot dispensaries within 45 days.
In Monday's lawsuits, lawyers for the marijuana suppliers said the threats have already forced numerous dispensaries to close. By cutting off patients' primary source of the drug, the lawyers said, this "comprehensive attack ... will eviscerate and likely eradicate California's medical marijuana program."
This is the second legal challenge to the Justice Department's campaign. A suit filed in San Francisco on Oct. 27 by the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access accused the department of mounting an unconstitutional attack on the state's authority to set its own health policy.