By Luke Thomas
August 2, 2012
A coalition of many as 200 medical cannabis community members staged a New Orleans-styled mock funeral Wednesday to protest the Obama administration’s forced shuttering of San Francisco dispensaries.
The recent closures of the Vapor Room and HopeNet are a direct result of an ongoing federal crackdown on safe access dispensaries that law enforcement authorities say are operating out of compliance with state law. The closures follow direct threats of criminal prosecutions and asset forfeitures by Northern District US Attorney Melinda Haag against the dispensaries’ landlords. Nine other San Francisco dispensaries as well as other dispensaries in the Bay Area have shuttered due to the threats.
Despite the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996 by California voters which allows for the cultivation and possession of marijuana for medical use, Haag maintains she is responding to lettered complaints about the proximity of dispensaries to schools, parks and playgrounds.
“Marijuana is illegal under federal law and I felt like I had to do something to respond to those members of my community that don’t support it and don’t support the impact they believe it’s having,” Haag told KQED’s Michael Montgomery during a March 15 radio interview. “The main complaint and the main theme expressed by the people that I’ve heard from is the impact on children, so with my limited resources I decided to focus on children.”
Later in the interview, Haag says, “I don’t want to send the message that if you are more than 1000 feet from a school you will not be targeted. I don’t know that.”
Advocates argue the closures will drive medical marijuana patients to obtain their medicine from black market operators and illicit cartels. Some fear Haag is an opportunistic rogue prosecutor who is using proximity as a pretext to impose her values on medical marijuana communities.
“Clearly the problem is not that you’re too close to a school, or because you’re too big, or because you’re too little – this is a coordinated campaign by multiple federal agencies,” said Steve DeAngelo, proprietor of Harborside Health Center in Oakland. “The real problem is that we’ve created positive examples of regulated cannabis distribution that has generated taxes, and created jobs that has taken money away from the criminal underground, that has taken patients out of contact with the criminal underground, and has reduced the burden on law enforcement.”
Federal policy achieves the exact opposite, DenAngelo said, arguing Haag is acting out of compliance with Department of Justice policy. He cited recent comments made under oath by US Attorney Eric Holder to Congress in which Holder stated federal authorities would only target those medical marijuana dispensaries that operate outside of state law.
DeAngelo, who voted for Obama in 2008 and raised money for his campaign, said he is “terribly disappointed” in the president.
“From my point of view, the president has failed to keep the promise that he made to our community and that’s why we’re here now – we’re calling on him to make sure that promise is honored.”
Obama counters he cannot “nullify congressional law.”
“What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana,” Obama told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone. “I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law.”
“I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, ‘Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books.’ What I can say is, ‘Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.’ As a consequence, there haven’t been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes,” Obama added.
Several elected officials attended a rally held outside the Phillip Burton Federal Building – where the march from the Haight District terminated – to condemn the actions of the Obama administration.
“It’s an important election year – we don’t want the Republicans to win – but somehow the Department of Justice, the IRS, and our US attorneys are harming Obama’s chances of winning,” said Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, adding, “We really need to hold the Obama administration responsible.”
“If president Bush can go eight years without infringing on the rights of these patients, why is the Obama administration doing the exact opposite?” said District 9 Supervisor David Campos. “We expect better, we deserve better – and if you want to get re-elected, you better do the right thing for these patients.”
District 5 Supervisor Christina Olague added, “We have to make sure that despite all of this, we have to find a way to make sure that the Vapor Room and HopeNet can continue to serve the medical cannabis community. I don’t know how were going to do that but we’ll figure it out in City Hall.”
John Dennis, a libertarian Republican who is running for the Eighth Congressional District seat against incumbent Nancy Pelosi in November, and who was denied an opportunity to speak at the rally in support of medical marijuana, told FCJ, “I am here to support people who want access to safe medicine. It’s that simple.”
“There are all sort of fundamental issues tied up in this,” Dennis added. “There are states rights issues, individual rights issues and property rights issues – all pushed over by federal thugs. They want to impose their values on sick people in San Francisco. It’s a disgrace.”