Berkeley Patients Group battles with government over medical marijuana

In Feature Stories, Regulatory by Brett Wilkins

Despite a promise made by U.S. President Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign that he was “not going to be using Justice Department (DOJ) resources to try to circumvent state laws” governing medical marijuana, the administration is pushing to shut down some medical marijuana dispensaries. In California’s Bay Area, Berkeley Patients Group (BPG), a medical cannabis collective serving patients since 1999, is fighting against the federal government pushing them to the sidelines.

The government’s opening salvo came last year in the form of a letter from US Attorney Melinda Haag claiming BPG’s location within 1,000 feet from a school violated state law. It’s reminiscent of a tactic used — sometimes dubiously — to force the closure of dispensaries such as San Francisco’s venerable Vapor Room.

BPG relocated, but is still being targeted by Haag, who earlier this month served the dispensary with a forfeiture lawsuit that seeks to seize its property and force the business to close because it violates federal law.

Despite California legalizing cannabis for medical purposes in 1996, the federal government lists the plant as a Schedule I narcotic, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use.” Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

The DOJ’s crackdown has enraged the Bay Area’s local residents, lawmakers and medical marijuana patients. They turned out for a May 8 press conference, and Berkeley city leaders agreed BPG is an invaluable community institution.

City residents have thrown their weight behind medical cannabis, as the legislative climate heats up from federal officials hoping to bolster its anti-drug mandate. Around 85 percent of the city’s voters approved the legalization of medical marijuana.

Patrona, a patient at Berkeley Patients Group, talking at a May 8 press conference at Old City Hall in Berkeley, California

Patrona, a patient at Berkeley Patients Group, talking at a May 8 press conference at Old City Hall in Berkeley, California

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates told the press conference that Attorney General Eric Holder “really messed up” by targeting BPG, a group Bates “virtually has no problems with.”

BPG Chief Operations Officer Sean Luse asserted there is “no legitimate reason” to target a business that “contributes to the local community, provides good jobs to employees and pays millions of dollars in local taxes.”

Jeffrey Bishop, an Oakland man who suffers from AIDS, said “the only thing that helps” with his pain is medical marijuana. “If BPG closes, I’d be spending every bit I have without their affordable medical marijuana.”

Arguments for and against medical marijuana are pitting local policy-makers against federal officials, a fight instigating an uncomfortable civil war in states such as California. Thanks to marijuana’s Schedule I status, medical marijuana supporters are clawing to keep dispensaries open, among other things, in a country boosting its fierce position as a drug enforcer.

Still, state and local lawmakers continue to make efforts to placate the feds. The latest attempt came on May 20 when the state Senate voted 22-12 to approve a bill barring medical marijuana dispensaries from operating at a profit. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) explained that the measure seeks to “assure that patients who need medical cannabis have access to it… [and that] drug cartels and other criminals do not benefit from the lack of regulation.”

It just so happened that Attorney General Holder delivered the commencement address to the University of California Berkeley’s graduating law students on May 11. A contingent of medical marijuana advocates, including the COO of BPG Sean Luse, gathered for a campus protest. Luse said BPG’s closure “would be devastating to the thousands of patients who rely upon us for the medicine their doctors recommend.

“Without us, patients would be forced to the streets… the only winners would be the drug cartels and the gangsters,” Luse said.

The Medical Marijuana Review  could not reach Melinda Haag for comment, but her office released a statement to the Oakland Tribune that read, in part, “we continue to take a measured approach and have only pursued asset forfeiture actions with respect to marijuana retail sales operations very near schools, parks or playgrounds, at the request of local law enforcement, or in one case, because of the sheer size of its distribution operations.”

In San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee has expressed his support for safe patient access to medical marijuana. But some in the law enforcement community don’t share his views. The DA’s office pointed to a 2012 statement from District Attorney George Gascón in which he flatly stated the notion that the city’s dispensaries were operating legally is a “mega-myth.” This, of course, is the same stance the federal government shares on dispensaries.

The state legislature’s attempt to reach an understanding with the Justice Department seems unlikely to end the federal crackdown anytime soon. California may soon set a national (if not international) example on how local lawmakers are fighting for their initiatives to trump federal policies, a conflict the cannabusiness world is watching.

Photo courtesy Berkeley Patients Group