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Feds Target Leader of Marijuana Legalization Movement

Pot Advocates: Feds' move against Richard Lee's dispensary "smacks of politics"

As the federal government's crackdown on the state's medical marijuana industry expands, the Department of Justice has targeted Richard Lee, the leader of the movement to legalize pot in California, The Bay Citizen has learned.

U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag sent a letter to the landlord of Lee’s medical marijuana dispensary, Coffeeshop Blue Sky, ordering its eviction, according to people familiar with the situation.

Lee, a soft-spoken libertarian who uses a wheelchair, is the founder of Oaksterdam University, which offers cultivation classes and business training for the cannabis industry. Last year, he poured $1.5 million into Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization measure that voters rejected.

The four U.S. attorneys from California announced a crackdown on the state’s billion-dollar medical marijuana industry Oct. 7, charging that many dispensaries are simply fronts for the sale and distribution of illegal drugs. Since the announcement, federal agents have raided pot clubs and arrested growers.

The actions highlight the conflict between federal and state authorities over medical marijuana, which is legal under state law but illegal under federal law.

Medical marijuana advocates said Friday that targeting Lee seemed politically motivated because of his leading role in legalization efforts and the medical marijuana industry.

“It smacks of politics,” said Dale Gieringer of the marijuana advocacy organization California NORML.

Haag declined to comment on the letter, but at the Oct. 7 press conference, she said, “People are using the cover of medical marijuana to make extraordinary amounts of money — in short, to engage in drug trafficking.”

At the time, Haag said her office had sent out “dozens” of letters to landlords and dispensaries in California’s Northern District, ordering them shut down or face criminal prosecution and seizure of their property and profits. Three dispensaries in San Francisco and one in Marin received letters.

She said that the letters had been sent to “stores that sell marijuana and allow people to smoke marijuana near schools, parks and other places where children learn and play.” Coffeeshop Blue Sky, located near Lee’s Oaksterdam University, is also a block away from Envision Academy of Arts & Technology, a charter high school.

Lee declined to comment directly about the letter; his landlord could not be reached for comment.

But Lee said the federal crackdown in general could change the face of the marijuana industry in Oakland and lead to the proliferation of so-called "Measure Z" clubs, private clubs where pot is sold and consumed. In 2004, Oakland voters passed Measure Z, which makes the sale of marijuana between adults the lowest law enforcement priority.

“If the federal government shuts down the medical marijuana system in Oakland, we will be forced to operate under Measure Z,” said Lee.

The Drug Enforcement Administration also sent Lee a letter in 2007 informing him that his dispensary was illegal under federal law, but never took action.

Coffeeshop Blue Sky is one of four dispensaries permitted to operate in Oakland. Earlier this month, the Internal Revenue Service ruled that Oakland's Harborside Health Center, the largest dispensary in the Bay Area, could not deduct standard business expenses because it was involved in "the trafficking of controlled substances." As a result of the ruling, Harborside owes millions of dollars in back taxes.

To some, the backlash against Oakland’s dispensaries seems like retribution for its lenient attitude towards marijuana dispensaries. Last year, the city backed off on a plan to permit four enormous pot farms only after Haag issued a stern warning. Lee's Oaksterdam was also the headquarters the Prop. 19 campaign. 

"I warned everybody from the City Council on down who was pushing for those four huge farms that there would be consequences," said Steve DeAngelo, who runs Harborside. "And I warned people who were pushing Prop. 19 that losing elections would have consequences."

"In large part what we're seeing is the consequences of an overreach by our community," DeAngelo said. 

Although DeAngelo and Lee have had their differences, DeAngelo denounced the attack on Lee's dispensary.

"Richard Lee is an absolute pillar of the medical cannabis movement — he paved the way for a lot of us," he said. "It's absolutely critical that the community stand up and support Coffeeshop Blue Sky."

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