Bill to stop medical cannabis dispensary seizures introduced in Congress

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With recent federal crackdowns on medical cannabis dispensaries across California, a bill that would stop the federal government from seizing lawful dispensaries — such as the one that was closed down in Berkeley in May — was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives last week.

The legislation — introduced by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and eight co-sponsors on Aug. 2 — would prevent the U.S. Department of Justice from using forfeiture laws to seize property from medical marijuana dispensaries that are compliant with state laws. The bill would not apply to dispensaries that do not follow state regulations.

“We should be protecting and implementing the will of voters, not undermining our democracy by prosecuting small business owners who pay taxes and comply with the laws of their states in providing medicine to patients in need,” Lee said in a press release.

Berkeley Patients Group, the oldest and largest of Berkeley’s three medical cannabis dispensaries, closed May 1 after receiving a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office warning the dispensary that it was in violation of a federal law that stipulates that dispensaries cannot be located within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds. However, California law only requires a 600-ft. distance between schools and dispensaries, and the dispensary has continued to operate via delivery.

On Oct. 7, 2011, the U.S Department of Justice announced a statewide effort to enforce regulations on the marijuana industry throughout California, which has resulted in contention between federal and state law. Since its announcement, the U.S. Department of Justice has sent letters to owners of commercial marijuana stores, warning them that they were not complying with federal laws and could be subject to closure, according to the department’s press release.

“Although all marijuana stores are illegal under federal law, I decided to use our limited resources to address those that are in close proximity to schools, parks and playgrounds and operations so large that they constitute marijuana superstores,” said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag in a statement.

According to Kris Hermes, spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access — a group that advocates for the legal use of medical marijuana nationwide — more than 400 cannabis dispensaries have been shut down across the state since May 1, with well over a dozen in the Bay Area.

Last month, federal authorities moved to seize Harborside Health Center in Oakland — one of the largest dispensaries in California — and just last week, two dispensaries in San Francisco were shut down.

Hermes said despite hundreds of letters sent, the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted fewer than 10 property owners and took action on only a handful of marijuana stores.

“That’s been the weapon that the federal government has used to close some of the most popular dispensaries in the area … (but) the dispensaries abide by local laws and pay their taxes,” said Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The bill is being considered in committees, but many speculate that chances of the bill even passing through the committees are slim due to the Republican majority in Congress.

However, Dan Rush, chair of the Berkeley Medical Cannabis Commission and director of the Medical Cannabis and Hemp Division at United Food Commercial Workers International Union, said support for the bill has gained momentum statewide.

“Congresswoman Lee is a hero,” Rush said. “She is defending union jobs, workers, and patients and … she’s found more and more support among congress members because this is the right thing to do.”

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