If the White House comes after California pot, what will that mean?

The Fresno Bee [Feb. 27, 2017]

For the first time, President Donald Trump’s administration publicly took a side in the marijuana debate, saying Thursday it would direct the U.S. Department of Justice to crack down on violators of federal pot laws in states where recreational pot is legal. California, which approved recreational pot use in November and already has clashed with Trump over immigration, would appear to be a prime target for this new enforcement.

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said medical marijuana would not be targeted. But many medical marijuana companies are currently looking to expand into providing pot for recreational use, so making a firm differentiation could be difficult.

Whether Spicer’s statements materialize into actual boots on the ground remains to be seen. But what could happen in the central San Joaquin Valley if the feds moved against California cannabis?

Enhanced enforcement could lead to millions in lost revenue and serious jail time for marijuana business owners. Differentiating between medical and non-medical farms could be difficult, and cities that have embraced the cannabis industry may lose a significant revenue source.

However, it isn’t likely that a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent will be knocking on your door for the two ounces of weed in your top dresser drawer. Case law and recent Justice Department directives have steered resources toward large-scale operations, especially those whose profits benefit criminal organizations.

In the Valley, it’s unclear whether any enforcement action is underway. Lauren Horwood, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Eastern District of California, said her office had no comment on any changes to Department of Justice policy regarding marijuana.

Since 2014, federal enforcement of pot laws has been mostly limited to cases set forth in the Cole Memo. Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole directed all federal lawyers to concentrate on specific problem areas, such as marijuana being sold to children, moved across state lines or being used as a source of revenue for criminal gangs or cartels.

But crackdowns could, however, shut down the large-scale marijuana cultivations popping up in a few Valley cities.

“It seems like America is the leading country in the world in going backwards,” said Wes Hardin, operations manager at Goshen medical marijuana dispensary CannaCanHelp. “This is a total step in the wrong direction, and it’s tough because we’ve fought these battles for so long.”

Hardin said a federal crackdown is worrying for both himself and his 15 employees whose families rely on the cannabis industry.

“I’m just trying to do the best for my employees and the nearly 15,000 patients we serve,” Hardin said. “No one’s being harmed by this. People of sound mind and age make the decision (to use marijuana).”

The move could significantly hamper what soon will be a billion-dollar industry, Hardin added.

He hasn’t thought about the threat of prosecution for years, but Hardin admitted he is a little worried about it now. “If (Trump) wants to go after a college-educated Air Force veteran and father for providing a service that helps people, what can I really do about it?”

Hardin and many others in the state could face significant penalties if the federal government moved against them.

Bill McPike is a local attorney with more than 30 years of experience – including 11 specializing in representing medical cannabis companies and patients. He said the federal penalty for possessing fewer than 100 marijuana plants for any reason is 18 months. Anyone with more than 100 plants faces five years, and the penalties increase from there.

McPike said previous case law indicates the DEA doesn’t normally target grows below 500 plants, nor does the agency focus on individual users.

However, he said the government could raid any companies growing, manufacturing or selling large quantities of pot – even if it’s medical cannabis.

That would appear to put Ocean Grown Extracts, which last year transformed a vacant Coalinga prison into a cannabis oil manufacturing plant, at some risk. The company has made a substantial investment – purchasing the property for $4.1 million and spending tens of thousands more retrofitting it and complying with strict state and local standards.

Attempts to contact Ocean Grown for comment were not successful.

The prison sale brought the city of Coalinga out of its $3 million-plus deficit in one night. It has since gone all-in on pot, filling its industrial park with other marijuana-related businesses.

Coalinga currently is planning where to place a dispensary, which was narrowly approved by its voters in November. It will likely be the only legal dispensary in Fresno County. A city that oil companies have slowly been pulling out of for years stands to make millions annually from tax revenue on these businesses.

Coalinga Mayor Nathan Vosburg said the city will take federal policy into account when making future decisions, but he noted that residents approved both a dispensary and Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana.

He added that the city still is working to curb all marijuana-related crimes. Police recently arrested three men accused of growing and selling pot without a city license – something Vosburg called “bootlegging.” They face both criminal charges and $1,000-per-plant fines for violating the city ordinance.

If the DEA does crack down on Coalinga or any other city’s marijuana businesses, the owners could face significant penalties.

Brenda Linder, another local attorney focusing on marijuana, said the government often adds a conspiracy charge that could carry a 20-year prison penalty to any cultivation or possession charges when taking down a large-scale operation. The pot, equipment and any related cash could all be seized.

Linder said a portion of the medical marijuana industry opposed Proposition 64 because of the looming presidential administration change. It worried, she added, that allowing recreational marijuana would put a target on the state’s back that could affect patients.

“Until it’s off the (list of illegal controlled substances), you are always going to be at risk,” Linder said. “And the state can’t do much to help you.”

The DEA cannot force local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal crime statutes, Linder said, but it can ask them for help or accept it if they volunteer.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said she “would be happy to help” enforce all federal marijuana laws. Her office works closely with the DEA on the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force and similar collaborations. The force has always raided marijuana gardens and made arrests, she said, but the U.S. attorneys stopped filing cases in recent years due to direction from former President Barack Obama.

Mims said she would also go after medical marijuana, as her deputies have tracked loads of it being transferred out of state to fetch a higher profit – a violation of both state and federal laws.

“It’s never about the medicine,” she said. “It’s always been about the money.”

Mims also cautioned cities like Coalinga for “hanging their hats on revenue coming from something that is federally illegal.”

Meanwhile, the state government appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

Deborah Hoffman, deputy press secretary for Gov. Jerry Brown, said her office would not comment until it sees an actual proposal or plan for action from the federal government.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra offered this statement: “I took an oath to enforce the laws that California has passed. If there is action from the federal government on (marijuana), I will respond in an appropriate way to protect the interests of California.”

Congress has offered some resistance.

Some members, including Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher from Costa Mesa, are working to form a cannabis caucus to fight Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has come out publicly against marijuana. The caucus was formed by representatives and senators from states that have legalized pot.

Sen. Kamala Harris said in a statement, “The voters of California made a decision about what we wanted to do, and their will should be respected. The resources of the federal government should be directed toward working with local law enforcement to clamp down on things like transnational criminal organizations and trafficking of guns rather than disrupting a system we are putting into place around marijuana.”

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