Medical marijuana superstores possible federal targets in Colorado?

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U.S. Attorney John Walsh has sent out two waves of closure-threat letters to medical marijuana dispensaries near schools -- and his spokesman reveals that a third wave is coming. But could Walsh's targets in Colorado expand to so-called marijuana superstores, as has taken place in California? His office rep says there are no such plans at present, but at least one advocate is concerned.

The official leading this charge on the West Coast is U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, widely regarded to be a hardliner on medical marijuana. She's among the pioneers of targeting medical marijuana businesses near schools, plus parks, playgrounds and anywhere else children might gather.

During early 2011, in response to a request for guidance about MMJ regulations submitted by Oakland's city attorney, she sent a letter that features a passage essentially outlining her philosophy on this subject. It reads:

The prosecution of individuals and organizations involved in the trade of any illegal drugs and the disruption of drug trafficking organizations is a core priority of the Department. This core priority includes prosecution of business enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana. Accordingly, while the Department does not focus its limited resources on seriously ill individuals who use marijuana as part of a medically recommended treatment regimen in compliance with state law was stated in the October 2009 Ogden Memorandum, we will enforce the CSA vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.

The Cannabis Therapy Institute's Laura Kriho interpreted Haag's missive as a clarification of the aforementioned Ogden memo, which advised U.S. Attorneys not to focus on MMJ patients or businesses that were following the law in states that had legalized cannabis for medical use. As such, she anticipated a federal crackdown. Jeff Dorschner, speaking for Walsh, suggested otherwise, noting that his boss wasn't bound by the Haag letter and would continue to look at possible marijuana prosecutions (like a prior one involving Highlands Ranch grower Chris Bartkowicz) on a case-by-case basis.

Then, in January 2012, Walsh sent letters to 23 dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools, informing them that they faced asset forfeiture if they didn't close or move within 45 days. One letter in that batch was withdrawn because children didn't attend classes at the building the MMC in question was near, but the other 22 centers followed orders -- as did an additional 25 dispensaries that received letters in the months that followed. According to Walsh, this action didn't contradict the Ogden memo, or a subsequent one by Deputy Attorney James M. Cole that distinguished between caregivers and dispensaries, because it was aimed at protecting young people from drugs -- a longtime priority of the Justice Department.

That's been Haag's mantra, too -- until this month, when she filed forfeiture complaints against Harborside Health Center, a mammoth operation that claims 108,000 patients -- more than the number of Coloradans with red cards according to the most recent Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment report. (Latest CDPHE total: 96,709.)

Haag's rationate? Harborside's size.

Page down to continue reading about the federal crackdown on Calfornia superstores. In this statement, Haag explains her thinking:

On Monday, July 9, this office filed civil forfeiture actions against 1840 Embarcadero, Oakland, California, and 2106 Ringwood Avenue, San Jose, where Harborside, a marijuana dispensary claiming over 108,000 customers, operates.

This office has used its limited resources to address those marijuana dispensaries that operate close to schools, parks and playgrounds. As I have said in the past, this is a non-exclusive list of factors relevant to whether we should commence civil forfeiture actions against marijuana properties, and circumstances may require us to address other situations.

I now find the need to consider actions regarding marijuana superstores such as Harborside. The larger the operation, the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state's medical marijuana laws, and marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated medical need.

The filing of the civil forfeiture complaints against the two Harborside properties is part of our measured effort to address the proliferation of illegal marijuana businesses in the Northern District of California.

Obviously, no Colorado dispensary is as large as Harborside. But is Walsh considering using the number of patients at a given center as a reason to begin actions against it? Marijuana advocate Timothy Tipton fears that as California goes, so goes Colorado. However, U.S. Attorney spokesman Dorschner says "it's important to note that individual U.S. Attorneys have a fair amount of discretion. Both the Ogden and Cole memos reiterate that discretion."

As such, he goes on, "we remain focused on the school initiative," with investigators currently compiling information for a third collection of closure letters. Dorschner doesn't know precisely when they'll be sent, and neither can he confirm that it will be the last of its type. But he says Walsh's office has learned that some dispensaries that had been within 1,000 feet of schools but had yet to receive a letter have already moved, presumably to avoid being forced to do so on the U.S. Attorney's timetable.

Meanwhile, Dorschner stresses that Walsh and company will also go after medical marijuana cases "where there is harm." He cites as examples the prosecution of Stylios Trachanas, a medical marijuana caregiver who pleaded guilty to pot and weapons charges (he received a nine-years-plus sentence, Dorschner confirms), as well as Nathan, Ha and Hai Do, three of the central figures in last year's Cherry Top Farms raid. Last month, after filing papers pointing toward a guilty plea, Nathan Do was killed in a motorcycle crash.

And who doesn't interest the U.S. Attorney? "Individuals who are ill," Dorschner says. "Our interest is in larger drug trafficking aspects of all Schedule I drugs," including marijuana.

His use of the word "larger" isn't meant to imply that Colorado superstores will soon be in the cross-hairs. But it likely won't reassure them, either.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana: Does Melinda Haag's memo foreshadow federal MMJ raids in Colorado?"

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