Debbi Baker, Kristina Davis and Greg Moran, San Diego Union-Tribune
An elaborately staged hoax that included fake notices about the shutting down of beach-area pharmacies and two letters purporting to be from U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy took several bizarre twists Tuesday before the real players behind it were revealed — medical marijuana activists.
The San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access, the nation’s largest medical cannabis advocacy group, took responsibility for the scheme at an afternoon news conference.
Local coordinator Eugene Davidovich said it was a “satirical” way to call attention to Duffy’s crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries for closure and possible prosecution and asset forfeiture.
Whether the stunt was mere civil disobedience or a federal crime remains to be seen. The FBI has been tapped to investigate.
Duffy said the characterization as satire “doesn’t change anything.”
“This matter will remain under investigation to determine if it’s appropriate to file charges,” she said.
Duffy said it is against the law to impersonate a federal officer and that the crime carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
The first hoax press release purporting to come from the U.S. attorney was sent to local news media at 7:05 a.m., claiming that legal proceedings, including criminal charges and forfeiture, would be brought against targeted pharmacies in La Jolla, Carmel Valley and Pacific Beach due to the high rates of pharmaceutical drug abuse. It further said the businesses had to shut down in 45 days.
A second hoax email was sent at 8:52 a.m., saying the first one was a fake and a “feeble attempt” to defame Duffy’s character.
The emails were sent on U.S. Department of Justice letterhead. The voice mail at the phone number listed on the release said the caller had reached the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
About an hour later, Duffy’s office sent out an email saying both letters were fake.
“It’s concerning that these kinds of notices could go out,” Duffy said at a morning news conference.
She said she learned about the hoax letters when her office began receiving calls from reporters and pharmacies. Fake “cease and desist” notices had been posted on several pharmacies, she said.
As Duffy was speaking to reporters outside the federal building in downtown San Diego, a man showed up claiming responsibility for the hoax. He handed out a news release from the Federal Accountability Coalition, and then walked away, refusing to answer reporters’ questions.
When asked if he was a suspect in the fraud, Duffy replied, “He is now.”
Another man who also claimed responsibility called his own news conference a few hours later at Balboa Park, announcing he was an actor and that the Federal Accountability Coalition was a fake.
Then Davidovich and a handful of activists spoke to reporters, confirming they were behind the scheme and blasting the U.S. attorney’s stance that many medical marijuana dispensaries are violating federal law. They were joined by the LGBT activism group Canvass for a Cause and The Yes Men’s “Yes Labs” project.
In October, the four U.S. attorneys in California mailed hundreds of letters to landlords urging them to shut down storefronts and grows. Since then, more than 500 dispensaries have closed, including 217 in San Diego and Imperial counties.
When asked if he was prepared to go to prison for the stunt, Davidovich said: “We’ll let our attorneys handle the legal issues.”
Many in the media were initially fooled by the hoax, including The Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Reader, which posted stories on their websites based on the first fake email. U-T San Diego briefly posted a story on its website based on the second email, saying that the original one was a hoax.