In several West Coast cities, federal officials are initiating a new round of crackdowns against dispensaries that are seemingly complying with state medical marijuana law. In Seattle, 11 dispensaries received shutdown warnings. In San Francisco, almost half of the city’s small number of state-licensed dispensaries received similar warnings. And in neighboring cities like San Jose, several others were warned.
The cease-and-desist letters from the Drug Enforcement Administration warn harsh federal punishment, including as much as 40 years in jail even for landlords that rent to marijuana dispensaries. They also warn that they if properties do not cease marijuana activity within 30 days, the agency will pursue what’s known as civil forfeiture, in which the federal government threatens to seize the facility and other assets if the marijuana business continues. For those who are renting space, this means the landlord is effectively asked to evict its marijuana tenant — a process that has proved difficult, as state and federal courts handling eviction proceedings resist this federal intervention.
This is not the first round of crackdowns in any of these cities, which have forced shutdowns of dispensaries considered “models” in their community, or festered in prolonged legal battles. But these crackdowns are particularly symbolic, because they come en masse, in the wake of ballot initiatives in November to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana in two states, and because they are being executed post-sequester, even as prominent law enforcement officials like Attorney General Eric Holder have warned that the blunt cuts threaten public safety. Polls since the November ballot initiatives found that a majority of Americans now support marijuana legalization, and that an even greater percentage think the states should decide whether marijuana is legal.
DEA spokeswoman Jodie Underwood said the letters went out to those who were within 1,000 feet of a school or other prohibited area. She said because the feds can’t go after all dispensaries, they target those that are closer to sensitive areas as a means of enforcing federal drug law. “DEA enforces federal drug laws, and these letters have nothing to do with any pending legislation or state law,“ Underwood told the Seattle Times. “As we continue to identify locations, additional letters will be sent out.”
And while the crackdowns have focused on those alleged to be less than 1,000 feet from prohibited areas, dispensary owners say it’s almost impossible to keep within that distance in dense city settings. Even those who have been meticulous about measuring the distance and cited their facilities right outside of the 1,000-feet limit say they were targeted this week.
Particularly noteworthy is that in spite of San Francisco’s size and culture, the city now hosts only about 15 permitted medical marijuana dispensaries that have been deemed in compliance with state and local law (some others closed during earlier rounds of crackdowns). Compare that to Seattle and San Jose, which both have more than 100. Los Angeles has several hundred. Out of San Francisco’s 15 dispensaries, seven received letters this week — a move that could have the effect of eviscerating the local industry of regulated dispensaries. While an official White House policy on Washington and Colorado’s recreational marijuana laws is still pending, the DEA’s current approach suggests that even state law-abiding recreational dispensaries may be subject to the same type of crackdown, in the absence of federal legislation to exempt those states.