DOJ Abandons Some But Not All Medical Marijuana Forfeiture Cases in California

In an unexpected but laudable move, the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California announced last week that it was dropping pending  forfeiture lawsuits against several landlords of medical marijuana dispensaries.

For months, the Obama Administration, and U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. in particular, had pursued the property of numerous landlords in southern California. Software engineer Tony Jalali of Anaheim was one of these landlords, whose $1.5 million retirement property had been home to a local medical marijuana dispensary, making it easy prey for a hostile Justice Department.

Indeed, since October 2011, when all four U.S. Attorneys in California announced a crackdown on dispensaries across the state, they've brought lawsuits against no less than 30 landlords. Some of the cases have settled, but Jalali's case and others remained a sore contradiction to a changing federal policy, illustrated by the August memoranda issued by Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole.

Last week, U.S. Attorney Birotte not only dismissed the Jalali lawsuit with prejudice (preventing the government from going after his property again), but according to the OC Weekly he also dismissed cases against three other landlords:

Last week, U.S. Attorney Birotte not only dismissed the Jalali lawsuit with prejudice (preventing the government from going after his property again), but according to the OC Weekly he also dismissed cases against three other landlords:

"Dr. Mark Burcaw, who owns two properties in Santa Ana, including one that currently houses a dispensary, as well as Tom Woo and finally, Walter and Diane Botsch, who stood to lose a property that had been renting to a dispensary in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles."

As commendable as Birotte's actions are, they have unfortunately not been matched by his fellow U.S. Attorneys in California. For example, the highest profile forfeiture case in the state against Oakland's Harborside Health Center rambles on as if James Cole never uttered a word, let alone testified before Congress that the DOJ would not target those in compliance with state law. Another lawsuit filed by U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag against Berkeley Patients Group, one of California's oldest dispensaries, also shows no sign of letting up. In fact, just days after Cole made his announcement, Haag's office was quick to say "we do not expect a significant change" in enforcement practices.

So, what's it going to be? Will Haag and her counterparts in the Southern and Eastern Districts continue to waste millions of taxpayer dollars to desperately hang on to cases such as the Harborside forfeiture lawsuit or will they stand to reason and stop the hemorrhaging of money that is unquestionably better spent elsewhere.

The Obama Administration has already made its devastating mark. The mere threat of asset forfeiture and criminal prosecution against hundreds of dispensary operators and their landlords over the past two years has effectively shut down more than 600 dispensaries across California. It's time for the federal government, including all of its U.S. Attorneys, to end the underhanded enforcement attacks in medical marijuana states. It's time to move on and begin to develop a sensible public health policy concerning medical marijuana.