Federal crackdown on marijuana operations has yet to target Berkeley dispensaries

Jan Flatley-Feldman/Staff
Berkeley Patients Group, located on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, is one of the city's three licensed medical cannabis dispensaries.
Berkeley’s three medical marijuana dispensaries remain out of the federal government’s line of fire for the time being as dozens of dispensaries and their landlords throughout California face the threat of federal prosecution if they continue selling marijuana.

Although the three dispensaries comply with Berkeley city law, their operations are illegal in the eyes of federal prosecutors.

According to a U.S. Department of Justice press release, California’s four U.S. attorneys announced Friday their “coordinated enforcement actions targeting the illegal operations of the commercial marijuana industry in California” — highlighting the disparity between local, state and federal governments on marijuana regulation.

The attorneys sent letters to dozens of dispensaries and landlords throughout the state, warning of criminal prosecution and asset forfeiture for the continuation of the illegal sales.

According to the press release, the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California plans to focus its attention on marijuana distributors operating near schools, as state AB 2650 — passed in 2010 — provides that no medical marijuana establishments can be located within a 600-foot radius of any public or private school.

Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern district — which includes Berkeley — added that although the office’s initial efforts will focus on such establishments, it will “most certainly be taking action against others.”

None of Berkeley’s three licensed medical marijuana dispensaries — all of which meet the 600-foot radius requirement — or their landlords have received letters, according to Elizabeth Green, secretary for the city’s Medical Cannabis Commission.

According to the press release, local officials across the state have been working with the federal prosecutors to “combat commercial marijuana activities that are having the most significant impacts in communities.”

One such case is in the city of San Diego, where the City Attorney Jan Goldsmith filed complaints in attempt to shut down 12 dispensaries operating within 600 feet of schools.

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that Laura Duffy, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, aided Goldsmith in the fight to close the dispensaries by sending letters threatening action against the 12 dispensaries if they did not shut down within 45 days.

All 12 of the dispensaries were operating without licenses as San Diego does not have an ordinance in place to regulate its dispensaries, according to Craig Beresh, executive director for the San Diego-based California Cannabis Coalition.

Although the U.S. attorney’s office of the Northern District of California would not disclose whether local governments have been collaborating with their office, Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan said in an email that there is no such communication between the city of Berkeley and the office.

The federal government’s current stance continues a narrative established in June when the U.S. Department of Justice released a memo threatening a federal crackdown on marijuana, stating that those facilitating and undertaking medical marijuana distribution are in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law.

In July, the Drug Enforcement Administration concluded that marijuana has “a high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” and that it also “lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”

At the first meeting of Berkeley’s reconstituted Medical Cannabis Commission in July, commissioners responded to questions about the federal government’s stance with plans to continue moving forward.

“We’re going to let the federal government do whatever they’re going to do — we’ll just know that they’re wrong and we’re going to do what we need to do,” said commission chair Dan Rush. “We’re going to move forward in the interest of patients’ rights and safe access for patients.”

According to Kris Hermes, spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access, a national organization that advocates for the legal use of medical marijuana, the federal government is not under any obligation to undertake such enforcement.

“It’s completely discretionary — (Obama) doesn’t have to enforce federal marijuana laws against licensed dispensaries in California,” Hermes said. “He can choose to allow the state to implement its own public health policy.”

Cowan said in the email that although federal law supersedes local and state laws, courts do not agree on the application of these principles in the case of medical marijuana.

“Berkeley’s facilities in particular are some of the longest standing dispensaries in the state … Berkeley is one out of at least 60 localities that has chosen to adopt regulations for licensing dispensaries,” Hermes said. “That’s what the federal government is standing against — it’s attempting to dismantle the laws in dozens of cities and counties throughout the state.”