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Smoked Out 

The federal government makes good on its threat to shut down medical-marijuana dispensaries—and the worst may be yet to come

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On April 23, federal prosecutors threatened to seize the property that houses two Novato dispensaries, Green Door Wellness Education Center and its neighbor, Green Tiger Collective. Federal prosecutors, including Haag, filed complaints regarding violations of federal law and municipal zoning codes, though the dispensaries are located in an industrial area that doesn't appear to be in close proximity to a school or park.

click to enlarge DUSTED Medical-marijuana crackdowns in Oakland, Fairfax, Novato, Windsor and Santa Rosa have advocates worried—and courtrooms full.
  • DUSTED Medical-marijuana crackdowns in Oakland, Fairfax, Novato, Windsor and Santa Rosa have advocates worried—and courtrooms full.

At press time, no Sonoma County dispensaries have been targeted by the DEA or federal prosecutors, but the county isn't immune to struggles between what's allowed and what's illegal when it comes to cannabis collectives. Proposition 215 may have eased access to cannabis for those who use the plant as medicine, but it's also opened up a situation where ordinances and laws become as slippery as wet fish in the hands of law enforcement officials who have the power to make on-the-spot decisions concerning whether the marijuana being grown is for medical use or not.

Kumari Sivadas of the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana (SAMM) says that since 2010, there's been an increase in prosecutions against groups that appear to fall within medical-marijuana guidelines.

"We've observed that there have been more seizures, more arrests, more prosecutions of collectives," says Sivadas. "These are collectives that have, for the most part, tried to be as legal as possible."

Clogged Courts

Of course, trying is not always the equivalent of succeeding, and Richard Ingram, a Sonoma County attorney with 25 years experience working actively on cannabis cases, says that one of the issues is the "moving target" nature of the laws themselves.

"What's good today might change tomorrow," he says. "I see people who are trying to do the right thing legitimately in medical-marijuana use, but they're not always on top of the current state of the law, so police arrest them because they haven't dotted i's and crossed t's."

Cases are then referred to the court system, where they might go on for months or even years, depending on whether the defendants accept deals offered to them by the district attorney's office.

In February, charges were dropped for about half of the defendants in the California Patient Provider Association case—mainly trimmers who were hired hands—but for those known as the "Windsor 16," the case has entered its seventh month. Only about four or five have private attorneys; most requested court-appointed legal representation. An April 5 arraignment saw almost all of the defendants, their respective lawyers, bailiffs and other court employees packed into a Sonoma County superior court room. One public defender, who declined to be identified, said bitterly that the hearing was like a "circus."

And more potential medical-marijuana cases are funneling into the Sonoma County court system in 2012, including one involving members of the Emerald Empire Gardens, a collective out of Santa Rosa, who are being called into court this month on charges of cultivation and intent to sell.

"We have 27 lawyers, and every one of them has got a marijuana case, and I'm confident that they have perhaps dozens each," says Kathleen Pozzi, chief public defender of Sonoma County.

Pozzi will not comment specifically on the California Patient Provider Association since it's pending, but she says that there are a large number of multiple marijuana cases in the system right now. She adds that critics shouldn't quickly assume that all defendants are people who have been operating within the law.

"Now, the prosecution's theory is, generally speaking, that this is an organization that is growing medical marijuana not for medicinal purposes, but for profit," says Pozzi. "If it wasn't their theory, they wouldn't file charges."

Mary Pat Jacobs, a spokesperson for the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana, says that more work needs to be done to prevent the cases from entering an overloaded and budget-strapped justice system. Last year, the public defender's office saw its budget slashed by 8 percent, even as 2009–2010 caseloads rose to 115,000, up from 71,000 10 years ago.

Jacobs says the problem is further compounded when defendants are dragged across court systems for years. Most of those cases never make it to jury trial. "The reason we're not seeing any cases actually litigated in the people's court or going to jury trial is that it's dragged out for so long, the money is unavailable anymore," she explains. "Their lives are on hold, so ultimately they plead guilty to a misdemeanor."

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