THE DEA AND THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES are at war over medical marijuana. On one side of the fight is the Drug Enforcement Administration, which seems to be doing all within its power to shut down the 180 or so medical-marijuana collectives (as dispensaries are called) in Los Angeles County.
On the other side is the Los Angeles City Council --
which voted on Wednesday, August 1, in a 10-2 vote, to officially regulate
the medical-marijuana business, so that scam artists can be rooted out and
those who depend on cannabis for health reasons can get the stuff safely
from licensed purveyors without threat of arrest and criminal prosecution.
Within the next 10 days, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to sign
what is officially known as the Medical Marijuana Dispensary Interim
So far, neither side shows signs of bending, and July has been a month full of skirmishes. On July 6, the Los Angeles branch of the DEA sent letters to nearly 150 of the landlords in Los Angeles County who rent sites to marijuana collectives, pleasantly reminding property owners that selling cannabis is a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in the federal pen, and that even peripheral involvement could trigger the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 -- meaning that the property owners' land could be confiscated by the U.S. government.
"This letter shall serve notice that, after a thorough investigation, the DEA has determined that a marijuana dispensary is operating on the above described property," concluded the feds' cheery missive.
The letter triggered a rash of freak-outs among targeted landlords, causing scores of them to phone the DEA office -- and their personal attorneys. "I'd say about 80 percent of the people we sent letters to called us," says DEA spokesperson Sarah Pullen. She says many believed that California state law trumps the federal statute, when, in fact, the opposite is true.
Attorney William Kroeger, who represents some collectives who rent space in L.A., says that if he represented targeted landlords, "I'd tell them, 'You should be in court five minutes from now filing eviction papers.' "
For its part, the DEA claims it simply sent the letters out as a courtesy, "to inform property owners about the law." Nobody in city government, or among the medical-marijuana activists, really bought it. "That's like me saying, 'I'm just informing you, I'm going to punch you in the face,' " says one unhappy collective owner.
Whatever its purpose, the tactic had a chilling effect. Although some property owners vowed to stand their ground, others told their tenants to move out, says Chris Fusco, the Los Angeles County field coordinator for Americans for Safe Access, one of the main medical-cannabis lobbies.
By mid-July, several collectives had closed up shop, including the Earth Collective on Sunset Boulevard just east of Normandie Avenue, which posted a note on WeedTracker, the best known of the medical-marijuana forums, that read in part: "Today, July 15, 2007, will be our last day dispensing medicine... We would like to thank the entire medical marijuana community . . . for their support throughout our entire campaign."
Then, on July 25, Los Angeles City Councilman (and former LAPD officer) Dennis Zine held a press conference before the Wednesday City Council meeting, calling for DEA Administrator Karen Tandy to stop threatening property owners and to allow L.A. to proceed with regulating medical-weed distribution without federal interference.
At the council meeting itself, Zine pushed through an "interim control ordinance" that put a temporary moratorium on new outlets in Los Angeles until more detailed municipal regulations are worked out.
"I understand there is a difference between federal law and California law in regards to medical cannabis," Zine wrote in his letter to Tandy. "Despite the difference, cities and counties must continue to uphold the will of our voters and adopt sensible guidelines to regulate the provision of medical cannabis in our communities."
But within an hour of Zine's press conference, about 100 Kevlar-clad DEA agents broke down doors of 10 medical-marijuana collectives, including the already shuttered Earth Collective. At some locations, says Kroeger, the agents even smashed vending machines, ostensibly to make sure none of the snacks contained contraband.
Zine and other council members were furious. "What the feds are trying to do is flex their muscles," Zine said when told of the raids. "They want to show us who's boss. We're not trying to legalize marijuana," he said. "We're just trying to regulate it for compassionate use for those who need it."
Zine blasted the DEA for "wasting federal tax dollars going after people that we're trying to regulate. These places are well-known. They advertise -- you don't have to go looking for them. Why doesn't the DEA use those same resources to go after the drug dealers who're ruining lives in our communities with crystal meth, heroin and cocaine?
"People don't like it when the government becomes oppressive," he said. "At heart, I'm a hard-ass cop. And I don't like it."
Indeed, it is unclear what was accomplished in the 10 raids. Although 200 kilos of "product" was seized -- not surprisingly -- and five arrests were made, no charges had been filed as of press time. Of the five arrests, two were for non-drug-related outstanding warrants, admits the DEA's Pullen. "We aren't even 100 percent sure yet if the warrants are still active," she sighs.
Most of the raided collectives claimed they would reopen. As soon as the feds left, the California Patients Group, which operates out of a storefront on Santa Monica Boulevard near Vine Street, tacked up a handwritten sign in its window that read, "Closed Today. Will Be Open Tomorrow." Several others announced they will reopen "soon."
"It's so maddening," says attorney Kroeger, who -- along with Zine and representatives of city agencies including the LAPD and the Department of Building and Safety -- is part of a working group hammering out the city ordinance still to come. "Here we are doing everything to regulate this, and the DEA goes knocking down the doors of a lot of people who may get evicted anyway."
To better understand this summer's battle, it helps to go back to 1996, when Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, was approved by a healthy 56 percent of California voters. It was the first such law in the nation. Since then, 11 more states have passed their own medical-marijuana laws, New Mexico being the most recent.
These state laws are in conflict with the federal Controlled Substances Act, but from 1996 to 2001, with a few exceptions, the feds pretty much stayed out of it.
But in 2001, under George W. Bush, the DEA began raiding clinics in California. Since then, the feds have waged an ever more aggressive campaign in California to shut down collectives that dispense weed to those holding prescriptions.
The DEA ramped up the Los Angeles crackdown on January 17, when the feds raided 11 collectives in one day -- five in West Hollywood, the other six in Venice, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks and Woodland Hills. Like last week's, these raids appeared unsuccessful. As yet, no charges have resulted and, although three of the collectives closed for good, eight reopened in less than a week. Within a month, several new collectives had sprung up, mushroomlike, to replace the three that closed.
The July raids coincided with a vote in Congress on the Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment, which proposed to kill funding now used for similar DEA enforcement actions in the 12 states where medicinal marijuana is legal. The House bill was defeated, but its strange-bedfellow authors -- New York liberal Democrat Maurice Hinchey and ultraconservative Huntington Beach Republican Dana Rohrabacher -- illustrate the party-crossing sentiment against the DEA's tactics.
More anti-enforcement attitude was seen earlier this month in Orange County, where the all-Republican county Board of Supervisors voted to regulate the sale of medical marijuana. Advocates pitched the fiscally conservative idea that issuing identification to legitimate purveyors would reduce pointless and costly prosecutions.
Meanwhile, in L.A. the war goes on. "Look, we're here to uphold the law," says the DEA's Pullen. "And we can't really pick and choose which laws."
At the collectives, the jitters continue. "We're hanging in," says one L.A.-based collective owner who declined to be named. "But we're getting tired. That's how it is for a lot of people I know, they're scared and tired." And on Monday, the California Patients Group, which had vowed to stay open, announced that it too was closing "as a result of the economic and legal hardship resulting from this week's DEA raid and threats made against our landlord."
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