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Friday, February 24, 2012

Medical Marijuana Crackdown: U.S. Attorney Has No Regrets

Posted By on Fri, Feb 24, 2012 at 3:10 PM

  • Benjamin Wagner, the explainer... sort of.

A flurry of media reports accompanied the Justice Department's crackdown on medical marijuana, announced at an October 2011 press conference in which California's four federal prosecutors outlined plans to attack the state's marijuana industry.

But since that media appearance, little information has trickled out of the federal government, and a "no comment" is the best Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for Northern California, has offered by way of explanation for her office shutting down six medical marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco and Marin counties.

And that's by design, said Benjamin Wagner, Haag's Sacramento counterpart, in an interview given to Hearst Newspapers' Washington bureau.

"As U.S. attorneys, it's not our job to go out there and engage in public debate," said Wagner, who added that he and other officials have "no regrets" over their campaign, which has to date shut down hundreds of dispensaries statewide.

State law in California allows for the use of medical marijuana, and legislation passed at the state level in 2003 allows for patients to "organize collectively" in order to grow and distribute the drug. This has led to storefront dispensaries which pay taxes, acquire business licenses, and in the case of San Francisco and other cities, operate within a local legal framework.

These businesses are "huge dispensaries, operating for profit," according to Wagner, who has to date offered no proof of these profits. In San Francisco at least, one of the city's smallest dispensaries was shut down by Haag, and all dispensaries must submit to annual inspections to ensure that they are operating as nonprofits.

Nonetheless, "[the crackdown] wasn't a lack of good faith on our part," Wagner said. "We were alarmed by explosive growth of these large commercial operations. These huge dispensaries are focused on profits, not helping sick people."

No dispensary has been charged with a crime during the crackdown; dispensaries have voluntarily shut their doors or been evicted by their landlords, who were told that they would face property forfeitures or long prison terms otherwise.

The medical marijuana industry in the state blew up in 2009 following a Justice Department memo that said state-legal medical marijuana cultivators, operators, and users wouldn't face federal prosecution for obeying state law. That memo was seen as a green light to get into the cannabis-growing game, which crashed the wholesale price of pot. Later, the memo was proved to not really be Justice Department policy.

"Conditions on the ground" have changed from 2009 to 2012, Wagner said, probably referring to the growth of the industry -- now one of the state's biggest -- as well as cities' willingness to tax and regulate it.

"A lot of people had a financial interest in promoting marijuana and were probably quite deliberate in misreading [the memo]," Wagner told Hearst.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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