November 26, 2011
Scott Smith, Stockton RecordOn his way out this evening, Jason Elola, manager of the last standing medical marijuana dispensary in the Stockton area, will lock the doors behind him for good.
His landlord last month received a letter from federal prosecutors leaving few good options.
The Oct. 6 notice from U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in Sacramento threatened to seize the building used by the Stockton Medical Collective, send its associates to prison and levy fines up to $500,000.
"This letter puts you on notice," it reads. "We will vigorously enforce the prohibitions against cultivation and distribution of marijuana, even if such activities are permitted by state law."
News of the collective's imminent closure came as a blow to Elola's 20-plus employees. They take pride in serving members, but come Monday they will be out of work, Elola said.
"It hurt," he said. "Everyone cried that day."
The collective works from a nondescript building, formerly used by a chiropractor, at the corner of Waterloo Road and Cherryland Avenue. It is just east of Stockton in an unincorporated area of San Joaquin County.
County supervisors have formally banned dispensaries, putting the Stockton Medical Collective on the wrong side of the law shortly after opening in May.
But the federal government's crackdown on dispensaries like those across California has also chilled the fledgling cannabis culture in Stockton and communities elsewhere where leaders wrote local laws allowing it.
Stockton adopted its ordinance earlier this year, legalizing up to three closely regulated dispensaries.
Port City Health and Wellness, a spa-like operation at 1550 W. Fremont St., became the city's first legal collective. It opened in October and closed after about two weeks.
Its founders said they and their landlord had no contact from federal authorities, but they nonetheless felt their gaze.
"What keeps us from opening is the threat," said Michael Rishwain, an attorney and co-founder of Port City. "We don't know what the feds are going to do."
Two other nonprofit dispensaries trying to open in Stockton also have put their plans on hold, in part due to the city's new wait-and-see attitude.
Stockton spokeswoman Connie Cochran said City Hall has put all action on cannabis clubs into abeyance until they receive clarification from state and federal authorities.
It is too early to say if this signals a coming change to the existing policy. The freeze could last well into next year, Cochran said.
Stockton is not alone, says Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, an association that promotes the rights of cannabis users and providers.
Areas such as Chico, Redding and Humboldt County are rethinking their policies, he said.
President Barack Obama in his campaign and early in his administration said that enforcing federal laws on medical marijuana would not be the best use of the government's resources. That prompted cities to enact local ordinances.
It is unclear who ordered the shifted position, triggering the recent enforcement. Drug Enforcement Administration agents last month raided a Stockton-area dispensary on Tomahawk Drive, also just outside of the Stockton city limits, shutting it down.
Hermes' organization has filed a lawsuit, which does not include any local dispensaries, accusing U.S. Attorney Eric Holder of violating the 10th Amendment, which gives states the right to set and enforce their own laws.
"This is going beyond the pale," Hermes said. "Attacking local and state governments is not acceptable."
In San Joaquin County, two other communities have considered writing medical marijuana dispensaries into their city codes. Lathrop this summer began hearings on that possibility.
The Tracy City Council this month took up the issue. A staff report cautioned that regulating medical marijuana is "complex" because it is subject "to differing legal standards on the federal, state and local level."
In its last days of operation northeast of town, the Stockton Medical Collective buzzed with activity. Cars surrounded the building, and all the seats in the waiting room were filled.
In the next room, members crowded around the glass counter displaying various strains and forms of cannabis. Workers carefully weighed it, placed it in bags and rang the cash register.
Upbeat music played and the walls were brightly painted with murals depicting the long history of cannabis from ancient symbols to reggae star Bob Marley.
The dispensary's attorney, Dorji Roberts of El Cerrito, declined to say how much money the nonprofit generated, citing the threat of prosecution. The collective has 6,000 members, he said.
Elola, the manager, said collective members, many of whom can't drive, will soon have to find ways of reaching dispensaries in Sacramento and the Bay Area or find illegal sources.
"Basically, they're going to have to get it off the street, drive around and look for it," Elola said. "We make it safe. People feel very comfortable here."