A plan to oversee medical marijuana cultivation centers in Oakland drew fire from the feds last week -- yet the plan is similar to that being developed in Arizona.
The way we read it, the February 1 letter from Melinda Haag, U.S. Attorney for California's Northern District, (see below), to the city of Oakland could signal possible problems for Arizona's medical pot program, which was authorized by voters in November.
Oakland wants to issue permits to medical pot dispensaries that would include a license to operate an off-site, large-scale cultivation facility of up to 50,000 square feet.
But Haag advised Oakland not to do it, warning that such facilities could be the target of law enforcement raids.
Under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, a.k.a. Prop 203, the state will be issuing licenses to dispensaries which can function as both retail centers and growing facilities. The latest proposed rules for the program by the state Department of Health Services allows for off-site cultivation facilities that would be closely monitored by state officials. Final rules are expected to be published on March 28.
Andrew Myers, spokesman for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project, which put Prop 203 on the ballot, says the new rules allow for the desired "wholesale" arrangement that would likely result in larger-scale cultivation centers supplying several dispensaries.
No limit has yet been placed on the size of any particular growing operation in Arizona.
The issue of federal law has been a sensitive one all along for states with medical marijuana laws. Marijuana remains an illegal, "Schedule One" drug under federal law, despite state laws. Although the Obama Administration announced a general hands-off policy in 2009 regarding medical pot, raids on medical pot grow shops, like the one last month in Michigan, still occur.
California's famously liberal medical pot law doesn't address the issue of large-scale cultivation like Arizona's does.
Myers says that's the key difference between Oakland and Arizona, when it comes to the feds' attitude. The feds say they won't mess with medical pot programs that are in full compliance with state law, and California's law doesn't allow big, dispensary-run growing facilities, Myers points out.
An article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes, other cities and states license "pot farms," yet haven't been contacted about their programs by the feds.
We're not convinced, though, that Haag's letter doesn't mean trouble on the horizon. While the feds may have decided not to bust sick people using pot, she writes, the U.S. Department of Justice will still enforce "vigorously" the laws against manufacturing and distributing the weed, "even if such activities are permitted under state law."
The Justice Department is "concerned about the Oakland Ordinance's creation of a licensing scheme that permits large-scale industrial marijuana cultivation," says Haag's letter. "Accordingly, the Department is carefully considering civil and criminal legal remedies regarding those who seek to set up industrial marijuana growing warehouses in Oakland pursuant to licenses issued by the City of Oakland."
Replace Arizona with Oakland and "city" with "state" in that last sentence, and the green future we've been writing about might not look as bright.
It's not just the growers themselves who could be up the creek, either.
"Others who knowingly facilitate the actions of the licensees, including property owners, landlords and financiers should also know that their conduct violates federal law," Haag writes.
Haag's letter was enough to spook the Oakland city attorney, John Russo: He told the city council last week that it would have to find another lawyer to handle its proposed pot ordinance.
We e-mailed Dennis Burke, the U.S. Attorney in Arizona, last week to find out if he shared any of Haag's concerns, and if Arizona's voter-approved scheme might be in jeopardy before it even gets started. He hasn't gotten back to us yet. But we imagine Burke might not want to say anything until DHS creates its final rule package. The regulations could go through some more changes between now and the end of March. (Don't forget: Public hearings are scheduled across the state next week.)
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If the feds want to bust warehouses full of marijuana plants, Arizona will likely have plenty of them by the end of the year. But in doing so, the Justice Department might only be creating a bigger "problem." That's because Proposition 203 allows qualifying patients to grow their own marijuana, or have "caregivers" grow it for them, if they live more than 25 miles from a dispensary. A clamp-down on dispensaries, in other words, would mean an explosion of home-grow operations.
Unless the feds want to encourage the rise of thousands of tiny, state-approved pot-growing facilities in the homes of Arizonans, they might just have to turn a blind eye to dozens of warehouse-sized, state-approved facilities.