Busted: US Attorney Emails Tell Two Stories of California Medical Marijuana Crackdown

By DAVID DOWNS  |  Published in Smell The Truth

California’s four US Attorneys (Benjamin Wagner, Laura Duffy, Melinda Haag and Andre Birotte Jr.) announced a medical marijuana crackdown in Oct. 2011. (USDOJ)

In October, the federal government dismissed with prejudice four multi-million dollar forfeiture cases against Southern California landlords who had rented space to medical cannabis collectives.

The attorney for the landlords, Matthew Pappas, says this wasn’t a case of the Obama Administration voluntarily dialing back the War on Weed, rather, it’s an attempt to defuse a political problem.

Pappas has emails showing that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles misled the public about the scope of the now two-year-old federal crackdown on medical marijuana in the Golden State. The Administration has long-maintained it targets groups breaking both federal and state marijuana law. But in emails provided to Smell the Truth, an Assistant U.S. Attorney writes the feds are targeting everyone.

President Obama’s U.S. Attorneys in California are “off the reservation”, Pappas and other critics said, and need to be reigned in.

U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr.’s office spokesperson, Thom Mrozek, did not reply to phone or email questions for comment.

Californians legalized medical pot in 1996, and the collective growth and distribution of the analgesic in 2003 (read about the history of CA MMJ Law). The state saw a bloom in collectives using retail storefronts after 2008, when the country elected President Oabama, who said on the campaign trail: “I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue.”

In March 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized the Justice Department would only target medical-marijuana providers “who violate both federal and state law.”

And on Oct. 7, 2011, when the four U.S. Attorneys in California declared a crackdown on medical marijuana businesses, they stated they were going after groups that broke not only federal law, but state law as well. “Across California, the federal government will continue to investigate and prosecute those whose actions not only violate federal laws, but also the state laws regarding the use of marijuana,” the Attorneys collectively wrote.

The statements tempered public outrage when multiple federal agencies along with some state cops closed thousands of California medical marijuana businesses, put tens of thousands of Californians out of work, seized scores of properties, imprisoned dispensary operators, and sent the most vulnerable and needy to the black market.

Medical marijuana advocates have long-maintained federal prosecutors – despite the ‘we’re enforcing state law’ rhetoric – actively target the most compliant, high profile dispensaries in the state – places like Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley, and The Vapor Room in San Francisco. And the advocates appear to be right.

In an Aug. 24, 2012 email obtained by Pappas during the discovery phase of a federal forfeiture case, Assistant U.S. Attorney P. Greg Parham writes his office is ignoring the President and Attorney General Holder’s orders in pursuit of forfeiture against a female landlord who rented to a dispensary: “I told her that Congress would have to change the law before we would be dissuaded to discontinue our efforts.”

Parham wrote another internal email on Aug. 28, 2012 about a collective operator named Jay Williams: “Williams was advised we are enforcing Federal law in this district and that all stores in our jurisdiction will be shut down,…”

On Dec. 28, 2012 Parham writes about a forfeiture action against another female landlord who rented to a collective: “She said (the dispensary was) not closing. I asked her why. She said they were operating lawfully under state law. I explained the state law/federal law issue to her and made it clear that we are enforcing federal law.”

And, on March 25, 2013 – after Colorado and Washington had already legalized pot – Parham displays an astonishingly simplistic view of state and national law in a letter to another landlord who rented to a club: “Despite the misinformation being disseminated by the marijuana industry, marijuana remains illegal to distribute in this state and the rest of the nation.”

The emails directly contradict public statements made by federal officials. Parham’s supervisor, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. has stated publicly since 2011 and as recently as July 28, on KABC’s Newsmakers, “we have been consistent in targeting those dispensaries that we think violate not only federal law but state law as well.”

Attorney General Eric Holder has been parroting the U.S. Attorneys’ lines to Congress. In Dec. 2011, Holder told the House Judiciary Committee that “where a state has taken a position, has passed a law, and people are acting in conformity with a law, not abusing the law but acting in conformity with it, and, again, given our limited resources, that would not be an enforcement priority for the Justice Department.”

Holder testifying under oath to one version of history while his prosecutors in California act out another shows “his U.S. Attorneys are not being controlled by the Department of Justice,” Pappas said. “(Washington D.C. is) not aware of what’s going on with individual U.S. Attorneys.”

“It shows their true colors,” said former federal prosecutor and San Francisco attorney Henry Wykowski. “They’re saying one thing to the public and another thind behind their backs. It’s mean-spirited.”

Pappas said he contacted the offices of Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and they were “shocked” at what’s going on.

Pappas’ forfeiture cases have since been dismissed.

But U.S. Attorneys across California continue to press forfeiture cases against other lawful marijuana businesses and their landords, said Kris Hermes, spokesperson for leading medical cannabis advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.

“Of course this doesn’t surprise us. It’s the affirmation behind the already obvious actions of the Justice Department over more than two years now of aggressive attacks on dispensaries in California regardless of whether they’re complying with local or state law,” Hermes said. “The U.S. Attorneys are employing a strategy of undermining the implimentation of California medical marijuana law regardless of what the top levels of the Justice Department declares.”

DAVID DOWNS is a San Francisco-based journalist who has appeared in WIRED, Rolling Stone, The Onion, The New York Times, and many other fine publications. Editorial Director of TruMedia. On twitter at @davidrdowns. Email him at david.downs@gmail.com

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