California Rep. Barbara Lee won't be spooked by the Justice Department's aggressive curtailing of medical marijuana dispensaries in her own backyard.
Lee, a top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, introduced the States' Medical Marijuana Property Rights Protection Act in Congress this week, which she says would curb the Obama Administration's efforts to intimidate state medical marijuana dispensaries from setting up shop.
"The people of California have made it legal for patients to have safe access to medicinal marijuana and as a result thousands of small business owners have invested millions of dollars in building their companies, creating jobs, and paying their taxes," Lee says. "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."
The bill will make it illegal for the federal government to seize the assets of medical marijuana business owners, a tactic DOJ has begun using to crack down on pot shops. While DOJ rarely takes legal action against businesses that comply with their local and state laws, Americans for Safe Access, a group that is committed to legalizing medical marijuana says the threat alone has been enough to scare roughly 400 medical marijuana dispensaries in the state of California to close their doors.
The Justice Department has sent roughly 300 letters to landlords in California and Colorado threatening to file lawsuits if they don't stop operating dispensaries.
"For the price of postage, the Justice Department gets to threaten an entire population of property owners and it is a very effective tactic," says Kris Hermes, a spokesman with Americans for Safe Access.
Lee announced her legislation just weeks after U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag filed a lawsuit against Oakland and San Jose, Calif.-based medical marijuana dispensary Harborside Health Clinic. Haag argues the clinics, which serve about 100,000 medical marijuana users, could be violating local laws because of the number of patients they provide pot to.
"The larger the operation, the greater likelihood that there will be abuse of the state's medical marijuana laws, and marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated medical need," Haag said in a statement. [Cuomo's Stance on Pot Could Be Good Politics.]
The asset forfeiture lawsuit caused an uproar in the community, with thousands of signatures gathered for an anti-lawsuit petition drive, protests, and political rallies.
"They won't stop until they have closed every single regulated law-abiding dispensary in California unless people rise up and say enough is enough," says Steve DeAngelo, the executive director at Harborside Health Clinic. But DeAngelo says it wasn't always this way.
The federal government's dogged pursuit of medical marijuana dispensaries has escalated since 2009. On the campaign trail and at the beginning of President Barack Obama's time in office, medical marijuana seemed low on the administration's priority list. [Read: Report says medical marijuana dispensaries are not linked to neighborhood crime.]
"I think the basic concept of using medical marijuana for the same purposes and with the same controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors, I think that's entirely appropriate," Obama said in the Spring of 2008 during an interview with Oregon Newspaper, the Mail Tribune. "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue."
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws and Americans for Safe Access estimates the Justice Department has carried out roughly 200 raids on dispensaries or growing facilities in nine states.
Hermes fears if the lawsuits persist, patients who need medical cannabis could be forced into the unregulated drug market. "[Rep. Lee's] law would take the wind out of the sails of the Justice Department to intimidate dispensaries who are serving patients in need," Hermes says.