By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Next month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to testify on Capitol Hill at the invitation of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) about the Obama administration's ineffable policy on medical marijuana. He'll have a lot to explain: When Obama ran for his first term as president, the former recreational pot smoker signaled he would not interfere with states such as California that allow sick residents to smoke cannabis. Yet in November 2011, the White House unleashed a major crackdown on the Golden State's biggest cash crop, threatening landlords and growers with criminal penalties and the seizure of their properties, as well as shuttering countless storefront pot dispensaries.
Despite the ongoing Potpocalypse, Holder as well as other Justice Department officials—including U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr., who supervises drug-enforcement efforts in Southern California—have repeatedly stated they aren't going after marijuana collectives that obey state law, but rather targeting only organized-crime syndicates, such as the multicounty pot ring run by San Clemente resident John Walker, who last month earned a 22-year prison sentence in an Orange County federal courtroom. Yet internal department emails obtained by the Weekly suggest federal prosecutors are intent on eradicating all storefront dispensaries in California. In one email, for example, a Justice Department official announces that while there are still some clubs open in Santa Ana, this "handful of stragglers" would be dealt with "soon enough."
The feds are apparently so intent on eradicating California's medical-marijuana industry that it is threatening wheelchair-bound activists such as Marla James, the president of the Orange County chapter of Americans for Safe Access. On Aug. 7, DEA agents paid a visit to 17511 Griffin Lane, a building in an industrial neighborhood of Huntington Beach. The location is the most recent home of Med-Aid, a group of disabled, sick and terminally ill Orange County residents who collectively smoke cannabis.
Under threats from the DEA and city officials in Anaheim, where Med-Aid operated last year, the collective moved to Sunset Beach, until police parked a cruiser in front of the group's storefront, forcing it to move once again.
James, a member of Med-Aid, says DEA agents served the group with a notice to close within 14 days or else face criminal prosecution—adding they were specifically looking for her. "I got a call from the collective saying, 'There are a bunch of feds looking for you,'" James says. "When I got home, there were six DEA agents waiting."
James, who had been attending a local Democratic Party meeting, wasn't even able to lower herself via her vehicle's wheelchair elevator before the feds surrounded the car and personally served her with a letter threatening to seize the building and to prosecute anyone who continues to operate a collective at the location. Med-Aid agreed to close its doors.
In one email shedding new light on the crackdown, Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Parham bragged about his office's zeal in eradicating all dispensaries. "My old pal, Jay Williams, called me again this afternoon," Parham wrote in an Aug. 28, 2012, email. "As you probably recall, Williams is the potential operator for the [marijuana] store that was due to open at the above location [in Anaheim]. Williams told me that he had talked with a couple of lawyers, and they told him that if he followed the letter of the law '110 percent,' then he had nothing to worry about. I told Williams that the lawyers lied to him and completely disregarded federal law. Williams was again advised that we are enforcing federal law in this district and that all stores in our jurisdiction will be shut down."
According to Parham, Williams asked whether he could relocate to either Garden Grove or Santa Ana. "I made it clear that there was not a city in the area that he could safely move to," Parham wrote. "Keep your eyes open for Mr. Williams (if that is his true name). It seems like he is really conflicted about staying in the game."
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Kowal took delight in the California Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year that upheld the right of cities to ban dispensaries. "The Cal SCT decision has really had a positive impact," Kowal wrote in a June 13, 2013, email. "In addition to closing the final stores in Anaheim, I just spoke to Garden Grove, and they inform that they were able to shut down 50-plus stores in a few weeks and are down to 0. Still some in Santa Ana and a handful of other stragglers, but [Special Agent] Mertus will see to that soon enough."
Some of the most recent emails obtained by the Weekly show that federal prosecutors viewed as cause for celebration complaints from landlords and collectives who worried about sick people not being able to get access to their medicine. In a May 28 email, Parham revels in the news that a landlord, whose surname is Kinney, had authorized eviction of a marijuana collective. "Kinney talked to the tenant today, and he said he felt terrible for all the sick people who were unable to get their medicine," Parham wrote.
In a separate email sent to Parham just five minutes earlier, one of Parham's colleagues, Sandra Sagert, expressed glee over the eviction. "[H]opefully, we can resolve soon, so we can celebrate! Has been a little over a year since we started. . . . [smiley face]."
Other internal emails show that federal prosecutors used tactics to deliberately terrify landlords who had rented to cannabis collectives. In a Feb. 12 email, one federal agent described a conversation he'd had that morning with a landlord who had no idea he was in danger of losing his property. The landlord, the agent recalled, "said he is unaware that it was illegal for his tenants to sell marijuana from his property. He also said he was never contacted by the government in reference to this property being used to sell marijuana."
The agent then asked his colleagues whether they had any record of a letter being sent to the landlord. In response, another agent chimed in and claimed he'd just hand-delivered a letter to the landlord, stating it had been mailed the previous year. "He said he never got it, but the tenants moved out around the time the letter was dated."
Responding to that exchange, Greg Parham, who was supervising federal asset-forfeiture efforts earlier this year, thanks everyone for their hard work and bluntly states, "We have made a strategic decision not to send our warning letters out via certified or registered mail."
Why would the feds deliberately not make every effort to ensure landlords are notified in a timely and reliable manner their buildings are being targeted? For "shock value," Parham's replacement, Steven Welk, allegedly told attorney Matt J. Pappas in a courtroom conference earlier this year.
"Mr. Welk told me he intentionally did not send warning letters to [three of my clients] ahead of filing forfeiture actions against their properties," Pappas claimed in a July 23 letter to Birotte. "Just days after receiving the lis pendens and notice of the federal lawsuit to take her property, [one landlord] went to the hospital for cardiac issues because of the stress. Her husband . . . told me multiple times he wasn't breaking any laws when I first met him."
One client, Pappas wrote, cried during his first meeting with her, while another landlord was "inconsolable" after learning the feds planned to seize his building. After a couple of months and the immense stress, Pappas wrote, the man "looks like he's aged 20 years."