For the past few months, the San Diego medical marijuana community has been on high alert, looking for a predator: the federal agent. This dangerous species has been spotted regularly in the past two weeks in San Diego.
A pair of Drug Enforcement Administration agents has been roving San Diego in plainclothes, visiting storefront collectives. According to some reports, the agents sometimes try to join the collectives, or ask if the collective is accepting new members. In other reports, the agents immediately hand the director, manager, or the nearest terrified qualified patient a letter, stating the collective needs to shut down shortly, or face federal prosecution. The agents usually close with a threat: you have between ten to forty-five days to shut down (for some reason the time period varies), because after that, it’s open season.
Though we have not yet received reports of any storefront collective federal raids in San Diego, these visits from the DEA have left San Diego’s medical marijuana community terrified – and angered. They are terrified that they, their families, or friends may face arrest or prosecution, and terrified that they are soon to lose their safe, reliable source of medical cannabis. And they are angered that despite the will of the people of California, numerous studies demonstrating that medical cannabis alleviates pain and suffering caused by ailments ranging from cancer to chronic pain, and the hundreds of millions of dollars that the medical cannabis industry has contributed to California’s economy…they still have to wake up every day, worrying that a pair of DEA agents can come in, threatening ‘open season.’
Adding to the fear and anger is that the federal government still cannot explain adequately why it is stalking the medical cannabis industry, or why many of the casualties thus far have been good actors, not people engaged in interstate trafficking, recreational sales, or violent crime. On the list of casualties is the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, which was, until recently, California’s oldest dispensary. Marin Alliance had a permit from the City of Fairfax, was one of the town’s top contributors of sales tax revenue, and was regularly praised by city officials for providing medicine to the seriously ill. But none of that mattered to U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag. Offering the shaky justification that the Marin Alliance was too close to a school, Haag directed the dispensary’s landlord to get them out, or face forfeiture proceedings. The terrified landlord, Farshid Ezazi, dutifully began trying to evict the Marin Alliance, but not even this satisfied Haag: she filed federal forfeiture proceedings against Mr. Ezazi on November 18, 2011.
Hoping to avoid Mr. Ezazi’s fate, landlords in San Francisco who had received similar letters from Haag have evicted their dispensary tenants, or agreed with the tenants that the dispensary must close. These casualties – who had valid permits from the City of San Francisco – have included Divinity Tree, Medithrive, and Mr. Nice Guy. Next on Haag’s hunting list is Sanctuary, whose landlord received a letter from Haag at the end of November.
Here in San Diego, numerous storefronts have closed because of similar letters from U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. Currently, no dispensary landlord in San Diego has received notice of a forfeiture proceeding. However, landlords with tenants who remain open have received a new round of threatening letters. And operators who have remained open have to contend with DEA agents roaming the City, possibly making a list of targets.
We cannot know how far the feds intend to go, or how many casualties we will suffer. What we can do in the short term continue to do is support each other, and watch closely. As for the long term, the recent crackdown has reminded the medical marijuana community of what it has always known: in addition to pursuing clearer local and state regulations, we need to pursue federal reform, and the rescheduling or descheduling of marijuana.
Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under federal law, meaning it is deemed highly addictive and without any accepted medical use. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, this backwards designation remains federal law. Since marijuana became a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana advocates have filed three rescheduling petitions. All were denied after periods of so-called review ranging from seven years to almost twenty years. The most recent denial was this year, on July 8. After nine years of review of the rescheduling petition – and facing a lawsuit charging them with unreasonable delay in deciding the petition – the DEA concluded again that marijuana is addictive and has no medical use. The Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, which includes Americans for Safe Access, has appealed the denial, arguing that the DEA got it wrong when it ignored the vast research demonstrating that cannabis is medicine.
However, the medical marijuana community does not have to depend on this appeal only to pressure the DEA to reschedule cannabis. On November 30, Governor Christine Gregoire of Washington and Governor Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island filed a petition with the DEA to have cannabis moved from Schedule I to Schedule II. The Governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, announced soon after that he would join in this unprecedented challenge by state-elected officials to have cannabis rescheduled, and as of the end of December, Colorado’s Governor did the same. The Governors are seeking rescheduling not only because of the research that has shown cannabis has substantial medical value, but also because they do not want qualified patients to live in fear, or for state officials to be perpetually concerned that the federal government is going to charge them for implementing state law, or otherwise threaten to dismantle a state’s medical marijuana laws.
Thus, though the medical marijuana community is under attack, the community has reason to hope. It will take time, but rescheduling marijuana, be it through appeal of the denial petition, or a new rescheduling petition, is on the horizon. Our terror will end some day, and anger that the federal government is interfering with medical marijuana states is spreading.
It’s time to declare open season on Schedule I.