Medical pot in California - feds want to turn back the clock

A college professor, a delightfully eccentric Englishman, recently mentioned to me his surprise at how "terrifically blatant" the medical marijuana industry has gotten in Los Angeleeez (his pronunciation). He was not being censorious, just surprised by the cluster of shops in Eagle Rock and the pot bacchanalia on Venice Boardwalk.

Now it was my turn to be surprised. I imagined my friend must have fallen asleep under a tree, in his vegetable garden with a bottle of beer at his side, a book by Anthony Trollope on his chest, and now had awakened 5-10 years later to find himself in a changed world. Truly, I said to my friend, how could you have missed LA's medical pot revolution/crisis? He laughed and asked if my martini needed to be topped off.

But I read this morning that my friend may not have missed much after all. It now looks like federal law enforcement agencies, led by the U.S. Attorneys, intend to set back California's medical marijuana industry by 5-10 years - about to the time when my friend fell asleep.

As reported in the LA Times and California Watch, the state's four U.S. attorneys are teaming up for a coordinated attack on medical marijuana industry. Their targets will be the largest pot shops around the state and, significantly, any landlords who lease properties to those individuals, including land for growing marijuana. California Watch:

That approach includes the possible seizure of land or buildings leased to marijuana operations that may be legal under state law but remain illegal under federal statutes. William Panzer, an Oakland attorney who co-authored Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana in California, said the days are numbered for the current model for medical marijuana dispensaries. It's an effective strategy because they're basically saying to landlords, 'If you don't do this, then you lose your property, and we could also come after you criminally,' " he said.

The campaign, according to California Watch, which says it has obtained a copy of a U.S. Department of Justice memorandum outlining the strategy, will target large-scale medical marijuana dispensaries that sell 200 kilos or 1000 plants per year and growers who have more than 1000 plants under cultivation.

The reaction from the industry was swift and angry. From the LA Times:

"It's coming out of left field as far as we're concerned," said Joe Elford, the chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, which advocates for medical marijuana use. "I really don't know what inspired this. It's a complete about-face from what [Obama] said when he was campaigning."

Others, according to the Times, don't believe the strategy will target regions in the state, like the Bay Area, where medical marijuana is deeply entrenched.

Dale Gieringer, the director of California NORML, which backs legalizing marijuana, said the approach appears to reflect the state's regional differences. "They want to do a clean sweep in San Diego, whereas in Northern California they can't possibly do a clean sweep," he said. "There's no political support for it. It would be devastating."

But the evidence of such a regional approach was belied by some of the Times' own reporting - including a report that the state's oldest dispensary, in Marin County, has already received a warning from federal authorities.

Landlords for some dispensaries have already received letters, including the owner of the building that houses the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Fairfax, Calif., the oldest dispensary in the country. "I assume the story you're calling about is: Obama takes resources away from fighting terrorists and goes after old ladies with glaucoma," said Greg Anton, a lawyer who represents the dispensary.... "We're trying to figure this out," said Jessica C. McElfresh, who represents some dispensaries in the city. "I am surprised at the size of this. I am surprised by the vast amount of planning that has clearly gone into it."

No question the feds plan to turn the clock back years on the medical marijuana industry.

Which reminds me: I wouldn't be surprised if a number of LA city's top elected officials would wish that lots of other Los Angeles voters would - like my friend - have no memory of the city's embarrassing history involving medical marijuana.

City Hall's record of neglect, clumsiness, sloth, missteps and confusion as hundreds of pot dispensaries popped up like weeds between 2006 and 2010 made our city fathers look like the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Finally, after wringing their hands ineffectually for years, as the city was ridiculed for having as many pot shops as Starbucks, the council and mayor finally stumbled across the finish line with an ordinance in June 2010 that severely restricted the dispensaries. It was not their finest moment.

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