There has probably never been a more confusing legal environment regarding marijuana than there is right now in California, and last Wednesday's multi-agency raids on two Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensaries serve as perfect illustrations.
In February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said that the DEA would no longer raid marijuana dispensaries that are operating in accordance with state law. Holder later said "our focus will be on people, organizations, that are growing, cultivating substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that's inconsistent with Federal law and State law."[ HASK3MP8NUTT ]
On August 12, a task force that included the FBI, LAPD, LASD, and DEA raided the Organica and Overland Gardens collectives at gunpoint, in riot gear, and with air support. At Organica, the officers shot a dog belonging to owner Jeff Joseph, detained patients and employees, used sledgehammers to knock away interior sheetrock to search for evidence, and confiscated cash and property. Joseph was taken into custody and charged with felony marijuana possession under California's Health and Safety Code. Although LAPD sought the search warrant last week -- and it's still unclear exactly why Organica and Overland were targeted -- witnesses say DEA appeared to be in command.
California law allows individuals to possess or grow marijuana with a doctor's recommendation, but laws regarding distribution and sale are less clear and enforcement is typically left to local authorities.
Mr. Joseph's attorney, William Kroger, described a legal environment that is evolving rapidly and often varies wildly from one locale to another. Kroger provided Huffington Post with an exclusive copy of the search warrant served on Joseph and Organica.
Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper told me that the intended effects of Mr. Holder's statements about federal involvement "can easily be blunted if the state law loophole is exploited by law enforcement" and that the sometimes cozy relationship between area federal and local officials can mean that agencies are "only too happy to enlist" each other when one jurisdiction wants to initiate a case but cannot themselves do so.
DEA administrator Michelle Leonhart, appointed by President Bush after serving in various California DEA field posts, has overseen the last decade of DEA paramilitary-style engagement with California marijuana dispensaries. While it seems unlikely she sought approval from the AG's office for the latest raids, she is undoubtedly aware of the new administration's change in direction (however nuanced it may be.)
No federal charges have been filed, raising the question of what standard the DEA is applying when deciding whether to "assist" local authorities in enforcing state marijuana law.
The legality of the two raided collectives is for the courts to decide. As perplexing as the current legal environment is for medical marijuana patients, one thing is quite clear: despite administration statements, little has changed with regard to federal enforcement of marijuana laws, even in states where it has been decriminalized.