Feds to target ads, landlords tied to medical marijuana in California

C.J. Ciaramella Contributor
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Federal prosecutors are turning their eye toward advertisements for medical marijuana dispensaries in the latest escalation of the Department of Justice’s efforts against medical uses of cannabis.

A U.S. attorney in California said she will be targeting newspapers, radio, television and other outlets that run advertisements for medical marijuana.

In an interview with California Watch and radio station KQED, U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy said marijuana advertising is the next area she’s “going to be moving onto as part of the enforcement efforts in Southern California.”

“I’m not just seeing print advertising,” said Duffy, whose district includes Imperial and San Diego counties. “I’m actually hearing radio and seeing TV advertising. It’s gone mainstream. Not only is it inappropriate — one has to wonder want kind of message we’re sending to our children — it’s against the law.”

Federal law prohibits ads for illegal drugs in “any newspaper, magazine, handbill or other publication.”

Although Duffy would not speak for other federal prosecutors in California, she noted their efforts have been coordinated so far.

U.S. attorneys from four California districts also announced Thursday they would be targeting landlords and property owners who rent buildings or land involved in the sale of medical marijuana.

In a press conference Thursday, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said, “What we are finding … is that California’s laws have been hijacked by people who are in this to get rich and don’t care at all about sick people.”

U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. called medical marijuana “the new California gold rush.”

Medical marijuana advocates and those fighting for the reform of marijuana laws have sharply criticized the attorneys’ announcements.

“This crackdown will not only harm legitimate medical marijuana businesses that pay taxes and provide jobs, but will heap even more financial problems on the media,” said a spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project. “The DOJ is taking business away from hardworking Americans and driving it straight into the hands of dangerous criminals. Make no mistake, this course of action will do nothing to stop the distribution of marijuana in California, but it will absolutely harm patients and decrease public safety.”

The crackdown represents yet another step back from President Obama’s early promises that his DOJ would keep its hands off state-approved dispensaries.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama said, “I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue.”

In an October 2009 memo, previous Deputy Attorney General David Ogden said U.S. attorneys “should not focus federal resources” on prosecuting those who are in “clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, an Obama appointee, also signaled that the administration would respect state medical marijuana laws.

“For those organizations that are doing so sanctioned by state law, and doing it in a way that is consistent with state law, and given the limited resources that we have, that will not be an emphasis for this administration,” Holder said in 2009.

But the Justice Department has hardened its stance on medical marijuana since then.

A June DOJ memo stated, “Persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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