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January 4, 2012

ASA is suing the federal government over recent attacks on medical cannabis in California. The lawsuit alleges that the Department of Justice is illegally coercing local and state officials with threats of prosecution for implementing state law.

The federal lawsuit, filed in San Francisco District Court on behalf of ASA’s 20,000 members in California, argues that federal prosecutors are trying to dismantle the state’s medical cannabis law, in violation of the Constitution’s 10th Amendment.

“Medical cannabis patients are not exempt from federal laws, but the 10th Amendment forbids the federal government from using coercive tactics to commandeer the law-making functions of the state,” said ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford, who authored the suit. “The recent intimidation tactics of the Department of Justice are nothing if not coercive.”

In recent weeks, U.S. Attorneys in California have threatened local elected officials and city staff with criminal prosecution if they implement regulations for medical cannabis dispensing collectives in their communities. Federal prosecutors have also threatened to seize city buildings where licenses for dispensaries are issued or other medical cannabis regulations are administered.

Federal threats include formal legal warnings to local officials in Arcata, Chico, El Centro, Eureka, Sacramento and other municipalities across the state.

In Chico, Mayor Ann Schwab received a letter in July from U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District stating that the city’s proposed ordinance regulating medical cannabis dispensaries would violate federal law. The U.S. Attorney also warned Chico’s city attorney, city manager, and police chief that council members and staff could face federal prosecution if the city implemented its dispensary regulations. As a result, the Chico City Council voted Aug 2 to rescind its medical marijuana cannabis ordinance.

In Eureka, the city council received a similar letter from the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District stating that the city’s publicly vetted licensing plan “threatens the federal government’s efforts to regulate, the possession, manufacturing, and trafficking of controlled substances.” The U.S. Attorney specifically threatened that, “[i]f the City of Eureka were to proceed, this office would consider injunctive actions, civil fines, criminal prosecution, and the forfeiture of any property used to facilitate a violation of [federal law].” Because of these threats, the City of Eureka has suspended implementation of its local ordinance.

The escalation in tactics follows a rare joint press conference of all four US Attorneys for California, in which they announced stepped up enforcement against medical cannabis activities in the state, including targeting publications and other media that accept advertising promoting medical cannabis.

Federal prosecutors have also targeted California landlords who rent space to dispensing collectives, threatening them with criminal prosecution and asset forfeiture if they do not evict their tenants within 30 days.

These threats are in addition to raids conducted throughout California, including an early morning DEA raid Oct. 13 on Northstone Organics, a licensed cultivation collective in Mendocino County. Federal agents handcuffed the collective’s founder and his wife and confiscated all 99 plants, each of which were had zip-ties indicating they were registered with the Mendocino Sheriff’s Department.

The California Attorney General, Kamala Harris, and local and state officials have publicly criticized the federal prosecutors’ tactics.

Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen called the DEA raid on Northstone “outrageous,” and said in a statement that “[t]he elimination of dispensaries that operate legally and openly will endanger patients and the public.”

State Senator Mark Leno, co-author of California’s Medical Marijuana Program Act, urged the federal government to “stand down in it massive attack on medical marijuana dispensaries.”

State Attorney General Kamala Harris said California should be free to implement state law without interference and denounced the federal government’s tactics, noting that “an overly broad federal enforcement campaign will make it more difficult for legitimate patients to access physician-recommended medicine.”

ASA’s lawsuit acknowledges that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal prosecutors may bring charges against state-authorized medical cannabis patients and providers but distinguishes that from the commandeering of California’s legislative function. The lawsuit states that this commandeering and intimidation of state and local officials is a “misuse of the government’s Commerce Clause powers, designed to deprive the State of its sovereign ability to chart a separate course, that forms the basis of plaintiffs’ claims.”

This article has been reprinted and was found on the website for Americans for Safe Access.

Further information:
Text of ASA lawsuit
U.S. Attorney letter threatening Chico officials
U.S. Attorney letter threatening Eureka officials

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