In the past few years, as some medical marijuana business people have been made into criminals in states with their own laws, no state has been more center stage than California.
The state saw the first marijuana law, so the medical marijuana industry has had longer to develop. And crackdowns have been vigorous, particularly at the hands of U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, who covers the Northern District of California.
It is Haag who is pursuing seizure of two major Bay Area dispensaries that even the cities that host them have considered crucial to public health and defended in court. It is Haag who played a key role in the raid of a dispensary that was the model for a county program to police pot. And it is Haag who recently threatened some seemingly state-compliant dispensaries with as much as 40 years in jail.
In its latest guidance, the Department of Justice made explicit that the size and commercial nature of a dispensary was no longer reason enough to prosecute. And Haag has been equally explicit that size and commercial nature played a role in her crackdowns, saying, “The larger the operation, the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state’s medical marijuana laws, and marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated medical need.”
Nonetheless, Haag said Friday that she does not expect a “significant change” in her approach, adding, “for the most part it appears that the cases that have been brought in this district are already in compliance with the guidelines.” There are a number of grounds on which Haag might be able to justify this comment. The guidelines leave significant leeway to determine what constitutes a “strong and effective regulatory system,” when there is “exacerbation” of drugged driving or “other public health consequences,” and when a dispensary is considered to be marketing to minors. But Haag’s explicit professed targeting of dispensaries because they are large and commercial would make such justifications particularly suspect.
Her response is an early demonstration of how the DOJ’s announcement will require the cooperation of the regional U.S. attorneys to change the legal landscape.