New bill would bar feds from seizing properties rented to medical marijuana businesses
August 02, 2012
Josh Richman, Oakland Tribune
A Bay Area congresswoman's new bill would bar federal prosecutors from filing civil lawsuits to seize property from landlords whose tenants comply with states' medical marijuana laws.
"The people of California have made it legal for patients to have safe access to medicinal marijuana and, as a result, thousands of small business owners have invested millions of dollars in building their companies, creating jobs, and paying their taxes," Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, said in a statement issued Friday by Americans for Safe Access.
"We should be protecting and implementing the will of voters, not undermining our democracy by prosecuting small business owners who pay taxes and comply with the laws of their states in providing medicine to patients in need," she said.
U.S. Attorneys for more than a year have been threatening landlords of medical marijuana dispensaries with civil asset forfeiture proceedings if they don't kick their tenants out -- more than 300 such letters have gone to property owners in California, Colorado and some of the 15 other states with medical marijuana laws.
Landlords whose properties are seized this way can try to retrieve them in civil court, but they're not afforded many of the constitutional rights granted to criminal defendants, such as the right to an attorney and a jury trial. And the burden of proof is on the property owner to show innocence rather than the government having to prove guilt.
Relatively few of the prosecutors' threats have led to actual civil asset forfeiture cases, yet the pressure has caused many landlords to force dispensaries to close.
Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for California's Northern District, did serve an asset forfeiture lawsuit last month against the landlord of Oakland's Harborside Health Center, a dispensary in Lee's district. This wasn't the first federal attack on Harborside: The dispensary already had appealed an Internal Revenue Service's finding that it owed $2.5 million in back taxes because it can't deduct standard business expenses such as payroll and rent while violating the federal ban on marijuana.
Haag has threatened civil asset forfeiture actions against landlords of many other Bay Area dispensaries as well. In San Francisco this week, local officials joined a "funeral procession" to Haag's office to mark the closing of two more dispensaries forced to close due to her pressure on their landlords.
Lee's HR 6335 would prohibit the Justice Department from using civil asset forfeiture to go after properties so long as the medical marijuana tenants comply with state law; those in violation of state law would still be fair game. Among the bill's eight original cosponsors are Rep. Mike Honda, D-Campbell, and Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont.