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The Justice Department is using a civil statute, aimed at seizing the assets of drug trafficking organizations, against medical marijuana dispensaries in California, Reuters reports. By using the law, the department is avoiding expensive and potentially embarrassing criminal prosecutions.

Federal prosecutors have brought more than a dozen lawsuits that seek to forfeit commercial properties housing marijuana dispensaries, the article notes. The lawsuits force owners to choose between evicting their tenants, or facing costly legal battles, with the possible loss of their buildings.

While medical marijuana is legal in California, the drug is illegal under federal law. The federal government is charging landlords of dispensaries with violating the Controlled Substances Act.

Greg Baldwin, a former federal prosecutor and a partner at the Miami law firm Holland & Knight, told Reuters the government’s strategy allows it to avoid bringing criminal charges against dispensaries. “If you bring criminal charges against these medical marijuana businesses, the federal government gets pilloried in the press for attacking California law and sick people,” he said.

The strategy allows the government to avoid being called soft on drug crime, while not having to rely on criminal prosecutions, noted Allen St. Pierre, Executive Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Prosecutors have sent hundreds of warning letters to property owners around the state in recent months, threatening legal action against their properties if they continue to lease space to medical marijuana dispensaries.

Federal prosecutors have limited their use of the civil statute to California, the article notes. If it succeeds, they are likely to consider using it in other states with medical marijuana laws.

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