The U.S. Department of Justice has ordered landlords to evict at least four Bay Area medical marijuana dispensaries or face criminal charges, The Bay Citizen has learned.
The move is part of a "concerted effort" by the federal government to crack down on the state's medicinal pot industry, marijuana advocates and criminal defense attorneys say.
On Friday morning, the four U.S. attorneys in California will hold a news conference detailing "actions targeting the sale, distribution, and cultivation of marijuana in California," according to a press release issued by the Justice Department late Thursday.
The actions directed at what the Justice Department calls the "commercial marijuana industry" highlight the escalating conflict between federal and state authorities over medical marijuana, which is legal under state law but illegal under federal law. As some California cities have looked to dispensaries for much-needed tax revenue, the federal government has toughened its stance toward the state’s marijuana industry.
“It looks like there is a concerted effort for an offensive against the dispensaries in California,” said Bill Panzer, a criminal defense lawyer who represents dispensaries. “The Obama administration, for all the talk that he gave during the campaign, the reality is his policies haven’t been that different from Bush’s," Panzer said.
Several sources confirmed that Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, sent letters this week to the landlords of three dispensaries in San Francisco’s Mission District — Mr. Nice Guy, Medithrive, and 208 Valencia Street Caregivers — and one dispensary in Fairfax, the 14-year old Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana.
Panzer, who has seen a copy of one of the letters, said that Haag threatened the landlords with criminal charges, forfeiture of their property and 40 years in prison if they don’t evict the dispensaries within 45 days.
According to Panzer, the Justice Department targeted the four dispensaries because they are within 1,000 feet of schools or parks where children play. There is no state law against having a dispensary within 1,000 feet of a school, but under federal law, selling drugs near a school can carry a higher sentence.
“They’re cherry-picking,” Panzer said. “They want to look good in the press, so better to go after one that's near a school.”
Haag did not return a call seeking comment, and a spokesman for the office declined to comment.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that the Justice Department sent at least 16 letters to landlords and dispensaries across the state.
The letters come just days after the IRS ruled that the largest dispensary on the West Coast, Harborside Health Center, owes millions in back taxes, as first reported by The Bay Citizen. The IRS said it won’t allow dispensaries to deduct normal business expenses such as payroll and rent, a potentially devastating financial blow to the industry.