Marijuana activists in California are gearing up this week for a flurry of statewide protests during President Obama's October 25 visit to the Bay Area, and then again for the election in the first week of November. The recent federal crackdown, in other words, is galvanizing the weed community. "We're pushing them back," said Stephen DeAngelo, founder of Harborside Health Center in Oakland. The medical cannabis club has started a legal defense fund to fight a recent $2.5 million IRS bill. "We're already beginning to regain momentum from this outrageous travesty of a federal assault."
Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, said new donors are coming out of the woodwork to bankroll the patient lobby group. "For better or worse, the Obama administration is making its own lemonade out of lemons," he said. "Its aggressive tactics are drawing attention to its ridiculously expensive policy on medical marijuana."
"I think this protest on Tuesday [October 25] may be the first unified show of support with a cohesive message," added Matt Cohen, founder of Northstone Organics in Ukiah. "I think [the new crackdown] will backfire."
Cohen knows something about federal overstepping. He's a prominent pot grower and supplier who is supervised by the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office, but the federal Drug Enforcement Administration raided his home on October 13, seizing 99 plants. Cohen was not arrested, but the raid was among the boldest in a series of federal actions that started with a press conference on October 7. Four US attorneys said the medical marijuana industry in California has been hijacked by profiteers and that the government would target exporters, profit-makers, and businesses in close proximity to schools and parks. Dozens of threatening letters have been sent to marijuana business landlords across the state this month, including three in San Francisco and several in Oakland. Sixteen letters also went out to Fresno landlords. The letters threaten property forfeiture for violating federal drug laws.
Taken together, the cluster of actions makes it clear that the federal government is going after major violators of the federal Controlled Substances Act while rattling its saber to everyone else. It's had the effect of putting a halt to dispensary permitting in multiple cities and has terrified operators and growers. It also buttresses local opposition to new dispensary permits, allowing locals to cite federal ire as a reason to delay or stop new clubs from opening.
David Goldman, a leader of Americans for Safe Access San Francisco, said the City of San Francisco may have stopped issuing dispensary permits since the press conference. And permits for 39 clubs in Sacramento are now in limbo, reports state. Oakland attorney Robert Raich said potential landlords for new clubs in the city have also been threatened with forfeiture, discouraging property owners from taking part in Oakland's plan to license four more dispensaries.
But the crackdown also speaks to the desperation of the Department of Justice, which has watched the number of medical marijuana patients in California grow to one million and the number of clubs in the state reach 2,000. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition spokesman Tom Angell paraphrased Gandhi, saying, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." "They're fighting us now," he continued. "They're terrified of public acceptance of marijuana."
The entire saga is little more than a rerun of past saber-rattling and it will backfire, Goldman predicted. "Under the Bush administration, Department of Justice sent forfeiture letters to all of California landlords with marijuana businesses and not one forfeiture took place," he said. "But it's effective. Back then about half the clubs in San Francisco closed."
The federal government is clearly trying to make an example of Harborside and Northstone, the two most prominent state-legal stores and growers in California, Goldman said. "They're pretty big. The federal government likes to go after the low-hanging fruit."
Cohen agreed. He does not know if Northstone Organics will re-open, but the raid has scared all the other legal growers in the Mendocino County program. Operators across the state are panicking, too, especially in battleground cities like San Diego, as well as Los Angeles and San Jose. Wherever there is local police opposition to clubs, the federal government is more than happy to pile on.
The industry and patients vastly outnumber law enforcement, however, and the possibility of taking 2,000 clubs to federal jury trials in California is not an option, most say. At worst, the witch hunt delays activist efforts to normalize the herbal remedy. "This is merely intimidation," Hermes said. "It should be obvious after the publicity stunt they pulled last week."
The US attorneys have already begun retreating from statements made earlier in the month. Notably, US Attorney Laura Duffy has started to back-pedal from her threat to go after newspapers that publish medical pot ads, saying that jailing journalists and editors was not a priority and she was speaking only for her own office. The Huffington Post also published statements from US attorneys saying they were acting independently of the White House.
"We're seeing a significant walking back of all this," DeAngelo said. "They overreached. They underestimated the degree of public support and they've been forced to back up."
Complacent activists have also been jolted awake by the events, Goldman said. "It shows you [that] these people don't believe in our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and they're willing to engage [in] deeply repressive tactics and it gives us the opportunity to point it out."
"It's without a doubt the largest coming together of the medical cannabis movement since Prop 215," DeAngelo added. "It's a time of great peril and time of great promise. The federal government has greatly overstepped where public opinion is. It shows how absurd and counter-productive it is and we've been able to build support for our positions."