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On October 7, 2011, at a press conference in Sacramento, US Attorney Laura Duffy, along with several other US Attorneys, announced a statewide crackdown on medical cannabis cooperatives, collectives, gardens, and others.
Without citing any specific violations in state law, Duffy's office claimed all were out of compliance and would be targeted for eradication including those fully licensed and regulated by local government and law enforcement.
Since this proclamation of war on California’s medical marijuana program, Duffy’s office sent hundreds of letters to landlords threatening asset forfeiture if they did not immediately evict their dispensary tenants. As a result of these backhanded tactics, many landlords were forced to comply. Within six months, Duffy closed over 200 dispensaries in San Diego alone.
These closures forced thousands of employees into unemployment, left hundreds of properties vacant and most importantly, left the 70,000 plus medical marijuana patients in San Diego county wondering where to get their medicine
Duffy’s war did not stop with just closures of collectives and cooperatives. With her next move, she focused on local governments. After learning that advocates had gathered enough signatures to place initiatives to regulate dispensaries on several local ballots in the county, she began threatening council members and city staff with federal prosecution for writing laws to regulate safe access.
This past July, Duffy fired off a threatening letter to the City of Del Mar, as well as sent DEA agents to several council meetings to intimidate lawmakers in person. Duffy's actions, as well as those of other US Attorneys across the state, are in stark contrast to what President Obama and the Department of Justice are saying.
During his election in 2008, Candidate Obama promised he would not use Justice Department resources to target those in compliance with state law, and his administration publicly maintains this position. In addition, as recently as June, Attorney General Eric Holder, Duffy’s boss, testified before Congress that his Justice Department would only undertake enforcement action against medical marijuana organizations operating "out of conformity with state law."
Under President Obama’s Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund has grown from $500 million in 2003 to $1.8 billion in 2011, with $79 million going directly to California law enforcement agencies.
Since October of last year advocates have worked tirelessly, using traditional means to fight against these attacks and to bring media attention to the issue. Lawsuits have been filed, letter drives organized, petitions signed, protests held, letters to editors written— yet nothing has worked. In fact, in San Diego the attacks seem to be getting worse and it was clear that something more radical had to be done.
How San Diego ASA Got Involved in the Action
San Diego Chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the nation’s largest medical cannabis advocacy group, working with LGBT activism group Canvass for a Cause, received a letter from the San Diego Museum of Art last month, inviting both groups to participate to participate in The Yes Men’s "Yes Labs" workshop organized by the museum as part of their Summer Salon Series program.
The goal of the workshop as the email explained was, "to identify a concrete, media attention grabbing idea and then figure out an approach towards making it come to fruition."
Upon accepting the invitation, another email from the museum asked San Diego ASA to have at least a few hundred dollars available to turn the project into a reality.
The next email read, "Despite the fact that the museum provides you with The Yes Men, the space, and meals, we do not want this cost to be a deterrent. Therefore, the Museum will contribute $100 in seed money to get you on your way."
The workshop was scheduled for July 23rd and 24th at Agitprop, an art gallery in North Park.
The opportunity to execute an action holding Duffy accountable with help from The Yes Men and with the support of local arts community, could not have come at a more appropriate time. Not only were advocates looking for new summer activities to take on as part of Americans for Safe Access's summer program www.CampWakeUpObama.com, but the first day of the workshop, several members had to miss a part as they were Downtown organizing a protest against Duffy’s attempt to close the sole permitted dispensary in the county.
The workshop began with introductions and an awe inspiring presentation of previous artistic actions organized by ‘The Yes Men’. The day then shifted into group discussions of causes everyone cared about and actions that could be taken right here in San Diego in support of those causes. After a few brainstorming sessions the group reached consensus to focus on the medical cannabis issue first. A plan was hashed out and Tuesday July 31st was set as the day of action. It became clear that through satire and art the chapter would bring attention to Duffy’s reign of terror.
The plan was that a series of satirical press releases would be issued to media first claiming Duffy would target pharmacies for closure using asset forfeiture proceedings, similar to her track record with medical marijuana dispensaries, followed by another press release from Duffy claiming the first was a hoax and the perpetrators would be prosecuted. Then, a fake organization called FAC – the Federal Accountability Coalition would take credit for both satirical releases. Finally, the real advocates behind the project would step forward and claim responsibility in a fourth an final release.
The Day of the Action
On July 31st, a command center was set up in the heart of Hillcrest. The day began at 7:04am with the first press release sent to the media from [email protected], an email address chosen to resemble the real Duffy’s but be clearly phony, stating that the US Attorney will be shutting down pharmacies for their high volume of sales of controlled substances, the same rationale used by US Attorneys to close medical cannabis dispensaries.
These pharmacies are not only about providing medicine to the sick. They are part of a pervasive for-profit industry that facilitates the distribution of drugs for illegitimate use. Doctors are prescribing unneeded medication; kids are overdosing on aspirin; police are finding pill bottles at junior high schools. Addiction and abuse of these drugs are serious problems in our communities and parents have come to me with their concerns. These pharmacies have provided not just medication - prescription and otherwise - but all the serious repercussions that come with it, including significant public safety issues and often irreparable harm to our youth.” said Duffy.
At 7:34am, local San Diego CityBeat reporter Dave Maass, tweeted: “I wonder if the real looking press release I got from a fake looking email might be a product of The Yes Men workshop with mmj activists.” (@DaveMaass).
While other media outlets, including the LA Times, were digesting the first release and trying to understand which pharmacies were being targeted, an actor playing "Deputy US Attorney of Narcotics and Logistics, Mr. Shiner" (a name selected randomly) was available by phone to answer questions.
"Yes we are shutting them down," said Shiner while answering one of the calls, "Prosecutorial discretion means Duffy decides how and when to enforce laws."
In the hour following the first release and while "Mr. Shiner" was answering inquiries from media, several Cease and Desist notices were posted by actors at five pharmacies in town. Although the fake press release said twenty locations were being targeted, only five actual notices were posted on the front doors of [email protected] claiming the first release was a hoax and that the perpetrators would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Analogous to the first release, the second had a spokesperson as well. This time, it was an actor playing Mr. Steven T. Fredrickson (another randomly chosen name). "Mr. Fredrickson" answered calls and email from media outlets and discussed the strict enforcement action he was planning on taking against the perpetrators of the first release. "They will be thoroughly punished,” he told reporters "we will be issuing another statement in the near future."
Shortly after the second release was sent out, the real Laura Duffy scheduled a press conference for 11:00am to discuss the fake releases. Meanwhile, Shiner's and Fredrickson's phones were ringing off the hook, with reporters trying to figure out who was behind the hoax.
Although not planned for, Duffy’s press conference spurred the idea of sending an actor to deliver the third release directly to the media gathered at the press conference.
Duffy stood outside the federal courthouse in front of a dozen cameras grumbling about the fake releases. Interrupting her speech, the actor walked up to the media and said, "Laura Duffy is a Benedict Arnold, nothing but a Benedict Arnold!" and passed out the third release, in which the Federal Accountability Coalition claimed responsibility.
This third release scolded Duffy for her wasteful attack on state’s rights, as well as insubordination of federal government, President Obama, and attorney general Holder. The release criticized her insubordination, raised concerns of her rogue efforts, and raised fears of Duffy targeting farmers' markets and people’s right to bear arms next. The statements in the release were so sensational that even more media attention was brought to the action as a result.
Once all copies of the release were handed out, he walked away, the media following him for several blocks. The mere presence of FAC caused all the cameras to shift focus away from Duffy and to the actor, as a result entirely spoiling her press conference.
After the third release went out, an actor playing Dexter Haight (another randomly chosen name) took calls and answered reporters' questions.
By this time, there were already multiple articles online about the hoax and the action was taking over local news coverage for the day. Various news outlets were running stories about the action, some of them mixing up real quotes from Duffy with quotes from fake releases, and all of them focusing on this organization called FAC.
The FAC had not only an email and phone number, but, to appear credible, there was also a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a YouTube Account, which were all getting a lot of traffic. The website and FAC press release included links to a video where Dexter Haight claimed responsibility for the hoax on camera.
The Youtube page had interviews with various people, including a pharmacist, a CVS store manager, and a patient who supposedly patronized the stores shut down by Duffy’s actions. As the actor playing Dexter was fielding dozens of calls and emails from media about the hoax, it became clear that the best way to finish off the day was for FAC to hold a press conference at which the full reveal would take place. FAC then announced that a press conference would be held at the Veterans Museum in Balboa Park at 2pm that day to discuss all the details of the hoax.
The media showed up in full force. There were multiple cameras, photographers, and a stand with microphones. The press conference started promptly at 2pm with the actor playing Dexter Haight coming up to the stand and announcing, “My name is Dexter Haight, I am with the Federal Accountability Coalition. I am here to announce that my name is not Dexter Haight, I am an actor.” After Dexter spoke, advocates took the stage and discussed in detail the horrors of Duffy’s actions and why they had gone to such great lengths to bring this issue to light.
Just as this final press conference began, the 4th and final press release was sent out, explaining that medical cannabis activists were behind the hoax.
"Just as the closure of retail pharmacies, like CVS or Walgreens, is poor public health policy, so is the federal government’s crackdown on medical cannabis dispensaries," said Eugene Davidovich of San Diego ASA. "Pharmacies, like medical cannabis dispensaries, play an essential role in our communities as they help the sick and dying treat and manage various medical conditions," continued Davidovich. "Laura Duffy and the Obama Administration have no place interfering in the implementation of state law by shutting down dispensaries that thousands of patients rely on."
Since the final release, multiple articles have been published by various news outlets covering the action as well as Duffy’s response. Duffy, however, instead of considering changing her stance on cannabis, has since threatened jail time for those she calls "the hoaxers" and has announced to the media that the FBI has been brought in to investigate; more waste of taxpayer dollars and another boneheaded move by Duffy’s office.
With this action and other actions that took place that week throughout the state, Duffy and other US Attorneys are on notice that any person who interferes with medical cannabis patients and/or providers will continue to be subject to coordinated grassroots response by the public at large, in local and national forums.
It is time to end this war on patients, let science lead public policy, and allow states to protect their most vulnerable citizens.
The San Diego Chapter of Americans for Safe Access would like to extend a thank you to all the advocates who took part in this wildly successful expression of art and satire, with a special thank you to Canvass for a Cause, The Yes Men, Agitprop and the San Diego Museum of Art for making this action possible.
San Diego Chapter of ASA - www.SafeAccessSD.org
Canvass for a Cause - www.canvassforacause.org
Eugene Davidovich is a Steering Committee Member of the San Diego Chapter of Americans for Safe Access.