Congress M.I.A. Amid Crackdown

California's delegation has been mostly silent as federal prosecutors target medical cannabis dispensaries.

California’s Congressional delegation represents about 750,000 medical cannabis patients and an industry that generates an estimated $1.3 billion in retail sales per year. But most of California’s representatives have been missing in action during the four-month-old federal crackdown on permitted dispensaries and their patients.

Since October, four US attorneys have threatened hundreds of landlords with civil forfeiture and closed five permitted dispensaries in San Francisco, as well as hundreds in Sacramento and San Diego counties. Prosecutors have repeatedly threatened local officials across the state, from Oakland to Mendocino to Chico, with prison, fines, and forfeiture. Congress’ response to these unprecedented predations? A single letter:

In October, some members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama expressing concern that the federal government was violating its own guidelines in coming after permitted dispensaries. “The actions … directly interfere with California’s 15 year-old medical cannabis law by eliminating safe access for the state’s thousands of medical cannabis patients,” the letter read.

The letter also asked the administration to reclassify marijuana so that it’s no longer considered a serious drug by the federal government or support a bill to do so.

Cosigners to letter were few, however. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein — fervent drug war supporters — have no love for medical marijuana. Of the 53 representatives from California in the House of Representatives, the cosigners were: Barbara Lee of Oakland, Pete Stark of Fremont, Lynn Woolsey of Marin, Mike Thompson of Mendocino, Sam Farr of Santa Cruz, Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, and Bob Filner of San Diego.

The silence from the rest of California’s Congressional delegation also flies in the face of popular support among voters for medical pot. Medical cannabis polls above 70 percent statewide, and about 46 percent of voters in 2010 favored legalizing pot outright for adult use via Prop 19. Yet the view from the Hill is bleak, said Filner, the only one among the cosigners of letter who agreed to an interview. “People are trying to stay out of it if they can,” Filner said.

Filner is running for mayor of San Diego this year, and his platform includes regulating medical marijuana locally. He’s running against San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who has worked with federal agents to eradicate safe access in San Diego. “I think they misread the public on this stuff,” Filner said. “There is widespread support for medical marijuana.”

Filner said if he’s elected he will work to install reasonable regulations in San Diego and “force a more direct conflict, as it were, to make the administration rethink its position.

“And I hope to lobby them personally over the next few months to find out what is going on, where this is coming from, and who’s doing it.”

In a written statement, Lee said she’s a longtime supporter of safe and legal access. She cosponsored a bill by Stark to get the IRS off of Harborside Health Center’s back. Lee wrote that she hopes she can “work with the Administration to find a way for these businesses to continue to operate like any other business and to provide patients the medicine that they need.”

The three medical marijuana-related bills in Congress — HR 1983, 1984, and 1985 — are expected to languish in committee. “It’s just that nothing is happening in Congress,” Filner said. “The dysfunction is so widespread.”

Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, authored a letter this month to House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, reporting that the crackdown “has so far resulted in the loss of thousands of tax-paying jobs and tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues.” Gieringer said he talked to Pelosi’s staff and to staff members of other members of Congress from the Bay Area about the federal crackdown, but got nowhere. “They’re not going to do anything,” he said. “There’s no chance of anything happening. [Even though] they’re all pretty much appalled by the way the Department of Justice has really patched together a response to this.”

The Mendocino County district of Congressman Thompson has endured the DEA overriding and ending the county’s model cultivation program. Thompson has worked to “facilitate communication” between the county and the Department of Justice on the issue, he wrote in a statement. “The U.S. Department of Justice should respect the rights of the state of California. Limited resources should be used to target illegal grows … not threatening law abiding citizens.”

Stark, Farr, Woolsey, and Rohrabacher did not respond to requests for statements or interviews.

One of the problems in the medical cannabis community is that many dispensary operators are unfamiliar with politics. A 2011 poll of dispensary operators that found most had been in business for less than a year. Charles Pappas, a City of Berkeley medical cannabis commission member who closed his permitted San Francisco club after federal threats this winter, said dispensary operators who have not yet been threatened are acting like “ostriches,” even though “the goal of the federal government is to close every dispensary in California.”

Filner said he is hearing from constituents, but by and large the medical marijuana community is new to this. “They don’t know how to lobby, apparently. It’s people that have not had to lobby and don’t know how to do it.”

Others, meanwhile, may circumvent the broken system. Colorado and Washington are considering legalizing adult use via ballot initiative. And throughout California, local referendums and initiatives have started to regulate dispensaries by popular vote.

“I think the politicians are in the 20th century and the people are in the 21st century on this issue,” Filner said. “I don’t understand the Obama administration —the cautious timidity. It’s a humanitarian issue to these voters. It just perplexes me that more people aren’t on board and the administration is so negative.”

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