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Federal Prosecutors, ‘Marijuana Stores’ & Large Grows

So apparently it’s back to Prohibition now. Or that’s at least what the four California US Attorneys, gathered in Sacramento, wished to convey in a joint press conference in Sacramento this last Friday morning.

While saying that they had not yet come up with a unified strategy, the prosecutors made clear that their offices would launch a concerted federal effort to quash California’s medical marijuana industry — the current incarnation of which, they said, perverts the intentions of voters who approved California’s Proposition 215 in 1996. In particular, they said that they would now be using federal law to target landlords and others who do business with “marijuana stores” and large growing operations with asset forfeiture proceedings.

(“Marijuana store” is apparently the new, official terminology for medical marijuana dispensaries. It was used almost exclusively throughout the conference by all four prosecutors.)

Why does this come now? Much was said about rising criminal activity coming from the industry, about environmental devastation due to large-scale grows on public lands, about the marketing of marijuana to children. It won’t surprise you that there was no discussion of the question that should be obvious to any PBS viewer these days: Are these things — truly ghastly things, sometimes — the consequences of marijuana or of marijuana prohibition?

Melinda Haag, US Attorney for the Northern District — the district we fall under — unleashed some of the toughest talk of all. She said that she would initially be targeting “stores” located close to schools, but underlined that anyone who has not yet received a letter from her office “should take no comfort in that.” She seemed willing to take the idea of targeting the marijuana industry’s business partners further than others: She said that her office has “assisted” local governments who institute medical marijuana ordinances by informing them that they are complicit in drug trafficking, and said that she is taking a close look at Mendocino County’s groundbreaking ordinance.

The prosecutors attempted to affirm that this is a serious and concerted push from their offices. “This is not an idle threat,” said Laura Duffy, US Attorney for the Southern District, at one point during her segment. “This is our commitment to our communities.”

Really, though — how much of it is bluff? Benjamin Wagner, US Attorney for the Eastern District of California, admitted that he has no extra resources to wage this war. Yet he said that it wouldn’t rob from things such as meth prosecution, and swore that he didn’t expect the new asset forfeiture regime to provide the necessary funding. You may be skeptical, but if that’s the case then it’s hard to see where a handful of federal prosecutors finds the cash to go toe-to-toe with one of California’s largest industries.

Question. Is this the best possible outcome for the small Humboldt County grower? We didn’t do so badly when the big boys were kept firmly in check. Maybe some of Humboldt County’s competitive edge returns with the federal crackdown. If no one’s growing 100,000 plants anymore, the guy with 100 has a decent shot. Especially while local law enforcement continues to look the other way.

I listened to the first hour or so of the press conference. Things were winding up when I jettisoned from the conference call to cede studio space. There’s a lot of extraneous audio in the digital recording from newbies and MJ fans who couldn’t figure out how to either mute their phones or shut their mouths, as well as some choice cursing from veteran reporters angered at having to listen to the theme to “Hawaii 5-0” instead of the federal prosecutors who were promising to flip the script on California’s medical marijuana regime.

“This is sea change stuff. This is a big deal,” said one federal drug official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter before the official announcement. “They’re sending a very strong message. We’re going to see more. The financial backstory is that it’s become apparent that (medical marijuana) is nothing more than drug dealing for profit."

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