SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the country's largest medical marijuana advocacy organization, filed suit in federal court on Thursday challenging the Obama Administration's attempt to subvert local and state medical marijuana laws in California. ASA argues in its lawsuit that the Obama Justice Department (DOJ) has "instituted a policy to dismantle the medical marijuana laws of the State of California and to coerce its municipalities to pass bans on medical marijuana dispensaries." The DOJ policy has involved aggressive SWAT-style raids, criminal prosecutions of medical marijuana patients and providers and threats to local officials for merely implementing state law.
"Although the Obama Administration is entitled to enforce federal marijuana laws, the Tenth Amendment forbids it from using coercive tactics to commandeer the law-making functions of the State," said ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford, who filed the lawsuit today in San Francisco's federal District Court. "This case is aimed at restoring California's sovereign and constitutional right to establish its own public health laws based on this country's federalist principles." The ASA lawsuit, which seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, was filed on behalf of its 20,000 members in California who are directly and adversely affected by the DOJ actions.
On October 7th, California's four U.S. Attorneys announced in a highly unusual joint press conference that the DOJ would be engaging in a multi-pronged attack on the State's medical marijuana laws involving enforcement action against State-compliant producers and distributors as well as threatening their landlords with criminal prosecution and civil asset forfeiture. In addition, the same U.S. Attorneys have been sending threatening letters to several municipalities across the state in an attempt to undermine the passage of local medical marijuana regulations.
-- On July 1st, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California sent a letter to Chico Mayor Ann Schwab stating that the city's proposed ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries would violate federal law. U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner also warned Chico's City Attorney, City Manager, and Police Chief that council members and staff could face federal prosecution for its attempts to implement such a law. As a result, the Chico City Council voted on August 2nd to rescind its medical marijuana dispensary ordinance.
-- On August 15th, the Eureka City Council received a letter from the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California threatening that its regulation of medical marijuana dispensaries violates federal law. Similar to the letter sent to Chico, the Eureka letter stated that the city's publicly vetted licensing scheme "threatens the federal government’s efforts to regulate, the possession, manufacturing, and trafficking of controlled substances." The letter added that, "If the City of Eureka were to proceed, this office would consider injunctive actions, civil fines, criminal prosecution, and the forfeiture of any property used to facilitate a violation of [federal law]." Because of these threats, the City of Eureka has suspended implementation of its local ordinance.
The federal actions announced on October 7th by U.S. Attorneys have also derailed the regulatory efforts of local governments in Arcata, El Centro, Sacramento and other municipalities across the state. Less than a week after the DOJ press conference, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) conducted an early morning raid on October 13th at Northstone Organics, a fully-licensed cultivation collective in Mendocino County. The DEA handcuffed the collective's founder and his wife and cut down all 99 plants, which were each zip-tied and registered with the Sheriff's Department. Mendocino has one of the most tightly controlled cultivation ordinances in the state.
Several local and state officials have publicly blasted the Obama Administration's tactics. In a recent statement, Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen called the DEA raid on Northstone "outrageous," and said "The elimination of dispensaries that operate legally and openly will endanger patients and the public." Last week, the co-author of California's Medical Marijuana Program Act, State Senator Mark Leno "urge[d] the federal government to stand down in it massive attack on medical marijuana dispensaries." On October 21st, State Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a statement renouncing the federal government’s tactics, claiming that "an overly broad federal enforcement campaign will make it more difficult for legitimate patients to access physician-recommended medicine," and urging "federal authorities in the state to adhere to the [DOJ's] stated policy" of allowing California to implement its medical marijuana laws without federal interference.
Although the lawsuit accuses the Obama Administration of commandeering California's legislative function and interfering with local laws meant to distinguish between medical and non-medical use, it does not challenge the federal government's authority to adopt and enforce federal marijuana laws. The lawsuit states that, "It is, rather, the...misuse of the government's Commerce Clause powers, designed to deprive the State of its sovereign ability to chart a separate course, that forms the basis of plaintiffs' claims."