The Vallejo Police Department in Vallejo, Calif., was forced to return more than $200,000 worth of marijuana last week to two dispensaries after a judge ruled the collectives were illegally raided.
In February 2012, Vallejo police raided six dispensaries, including Better Health Group and L.E.S., and charged the owners with marijuana distribution. Medical marijuana is legal in California and a Solano County judge disagreed with prosecutors that the dispensaries were operating outside of the state’s medical marijuana laws.
Items returned to the collectives included 44 pounds of pot, 346 marijuana food products, 531 dead plants, 44 marijuana-infused drinks and 14 computers to Better Health Group, and 14 pounds of marijuana was returned to L.E.S.
Scot Candell is a San Rafael-based attorney who legally represented both collectives. He said he was glad to see the cases were finally coming to a close.
“The court found the patients were complying with California’s medical marijuana laws and the property was being lawfully possessed under state law,” Candell said. “The only thing left to determine is whether the medicine has been rendered useless due to the yearlong storage in police evidence lockers, and if so, how the patients will be compensated for that loss.”
Raids of the six dispensaries cost the city hundreds of hundreds of thousands of dollars. For a city that’s struggled financially for years — with the city filing bankruptcy in 2008 — to residents like Paul Armentano, it’s puzzling why police continue to raid dispensaries when the courts often rule against them. Armentano called the local cops’ backward approach to legal activity “ludicrous” and “dangerous.”
Costly raids like the one that affected Better Health Group and L.E.S. collective members put a financial strain on a police department that has had to cut its staff from about 150 to 90. With the police force shrinking has come an increase in crime, which police say may or may not be connected to the increase in the number of dispensaries in the area.
But prosecutors and Vallejo police maintain they will continue to investigate marijuana shops they suspect are using the Compassionate Use Act and Medical Marijuana Program Act as a front for criminal activities.
The City Council recently agreed to pass a moratorium on any new medical marijuana businesses from opening up in the city and have asked federal officials to enforce federal law — which prohibits the use of marijuana for any reason — instead of state law in Vallejo. But residents like Armentano say this decision will do more damage than good.
“Vallejo is in desperate need of revenue,” he said. “These operations are some of the few businesses not only profitable in Vallejo, they are one of the very few that appear to be attracted to Vallejo at this point in time.”
California versus the federal government
Medical marijuana has been legal in California for more than 15 years, but the state still finds itself in a battle with the federal government over whether the sale of marijuana for medical purposes is legal.
Though the federal government has a reputation for targeting dispensaries in the state — shutting them down and arresting and charging the owners for selling pot — dispensaries are more common than coffee shops in some cities, even ubiquitous franchise shops like Starbucks.
Los Angeles alone was home to about 1,000 dispensaries in 2009, but as the local government receives more and more pressure from the federal government, local authorities have begun to crack down on the industry and shut down those dispensaries.
Talking to National Public Radio, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley said the vast majority of the dispensaries in Los Angeles County were operating illegally.
“They’re dealing marijuana illegally, according to our theory,” Cooley said. “So we are going to, over time, through civil abatement procedures and felony prosecutions by the DA’s Office, we’re going to eradicate the illegal sales of marijuana that are occurring in dispensaries.”
In the San Francisco Bay Area in the northern part of the state, which includes San Francisco and Oakland, the city of Oakland was so overrun with dispensaries that the city decided to curtail the number of dispensaries. There are now only four in the area.
Last week in Santa Ana, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that federal officials had “moved against 63 illegal marijuana stores.” Federal prosecutors executed two search warrants and filed three asset-forfeiture complaints against a reported seven dispensaries.
“Prosecutors sent warning letters to people associated with 56 other stores not involved in the forfeiture actions. The federal actions involve all known marijuana stores in the City of Santa Ana,” according to the statement.
When the federal government isn’t literally knocking down the door on dispensaries, local governments often pass legislation that can be detrimental to the industry. Like Vallejo, San Diego’s City Council nullified the state’s medical marijuana laws in 2011, meaning medical marijuana laws do not apply in the city.
All existing medical marijuana shops were deemed illegal and the city shut down the some 100 dispensaries. Luckily for medical marijuana patients living in San Diego, the city’s mayor, Bob Filner, has been an advocate for marijuana dispensaries as a safe place for patients to get their medicine. He has pushed for reinstating the medical marijuana law and the city council has agreed to discuss the issue again.
Since Filner’s announcement, about 20 dispensaries have opened in the area, but they are not legal. According to a local ABC affiliate, the only reason the dispensaries are still open is because they have not been reported to city code inspectors.