CA NORML News
July 25th, 2007, The DEA launched a long-awaited crackdown on Los Angeles' thriving medical marijuana scene, raiding ten different Hollywood clubs in a single day.
The raids came two weeks after the DEA sent out letters to some 120 to 150 LA dispensary landlords, warning them that they were liable to forfeiture and criminal prosecution for allowing distribution of illegal drugs on their property.
In a separate action, the L.A. U.S. attorney's office announced several indictments in pending cases. Targets included operators in Morro Bay, Corona, Bakersfield, and West Hollywood, but none of the LA clubs.
The raids were perfectly timed to send a message, coming on the same day that the LA City Council was scheduled to vote on a dispensary regulation and moratorium ordinance, and the same day that Congress voted on the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment.
The raids also succeeded in energizing support for medical marijuana to a level hitherto unseen in L.A., as the City Council, press, and local patients rallied against the DEA.
Protesters demonstrated as the DEA raided the California Patients Group on Santa Monica Blvd., a local headquarters for Americans for Safe Access and meeting space for medical marijuana activists. More than a dozen protesters joined Dege Coutee in blockading DEA cars outside the club, securing the release of all of the club's employees who were being detained inside. Coutee was arrested and charged with a state misdemeanor for obstructing police.
LA City Councilman Dennis Zine, a former LAPD officer who is sponsoring an ordinance to regulate dispensaries, held a press conference to protest the raids. Zine preented a letter to the DEA calling on it to stop threatening landlords and to allow the city to regulate dispensaries without interference. Council President Eric Garcetti and other council members signed on to the letter and expressed their support for medical marijuana.
Later in the day, the council unanimously approved the first reading of Zine's bill to place a moratorium on new dispensaries while the city considers regulations, a move strongly endorsed by California patients' groups as a necessary step to establishing order and legitimacy for the city's dispensaries. The council also voted unanimously to endorse the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which was being voted on by the U.S. House.
"It was a wonderful and terrible day for medical cannabis in LA," said Southern California ASA director Don Duncan, who thanked supporters and city officials for their response. "Los Angeles has turned a corner on medical cannabis and the endgame is now in sight."
While the DEA crackdown sent a shock through the cannabis community, it fell short of the kind of all-out sweep that many have feared. A score of clubs promptly folded or planned to relocate in the wake of the landlord letters. Others decided to go underground or stop accepting new patients. However, the great majority of LA's 200-odd clubs remained in operation. So far, no federal charges have been announced against LA dispensaries, despite repeated raids, including another wave of 11 raids in greater LA last January.
The letters were carefully targeted to the City of Los Angeles, not surrounding communities, suggesting they were planned in collaboration with local police. Clubs that engaged in aggressive advertising were most likely to be hit by the letters.
The LA raids were concentrated in Hollywood, likewise suggesting collaboration by the LAPD, who were present at the raids. (One of the dispensaries also had a branch in Buellton that was raided). In private conversations, DEA spokesmen say they do not raid medical marijuana clubs without support from local authorities, a pattern that has generally held throughout the state since 2004.
DEA spokeswoman Sarah Pullen told the press that the letters should not be viewed as a threat. "We are literally just serving notice that these property owners are violating the law," she said. Nonetheless, the letters have important legal significance, since they deprive landlords of the opportunity to claim that they were "innocent owners" unaware of illegal activity on their premises. Forfeiture attorneys typically advise landlords who have received such notices to promptly evict tenants or take other action to insure that they desist from illegal activity.
Most landlords were inclined to take the forfeiture warning seriously, though some indicated they would resist, while others doubted the seriousness of the threat.
There were no indications that the US Attorney's office was prepared to follow through with a massive forfeiture action against the city's landlords. Any such action would invite a strong public backlash against a Department of Justice already crippled by severe credibility issues. The LA Times editorialized against the letters as a "deplorable new bullying tactic," warning that if DEA tried to use it, Congress should deprive it of civil asset forfeiture powers altogether.
Federal forfeiture powers are limited by a Supreme Court ruling that forfeitures cannot be excessive, but must be in line with the culpability of the landlord. This is typically measured by the rent that has been collected and the criminal fine for the offense. Under this doctrine, the proprietor of a large shopping complex is unlikely to lose the entire property for renting to one small dispensary.
The landlord letters are said to have been ordered by DEA headquarters in Washington, DC, which presented testimony to Congress against the LA clubs on July 12th. The letters were sent by registered mail on July 6th.