Raising the stakes in the federal government's war against medical marijuana, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has warned more than 150 Los Angeles landlords that they risk arrest and the loss of their properties if they continue renting to cannabis dispensaries.
The two-page letter sent last week by Timothy J. Landrum, DEA special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office, has whipped up worries among landlords and dispensary operators in a region that has seen a proliferation of the businesses in the last two years.
"I'm devastated," said Lisa Sawoya, who left her lucrative job selling high-tech hospital equipment to open a dispensary 18 months ago in Hollywood. "My landlord believes in cannabis as medicine. But they're taking the letter very seriously. So I'll be closing my doors at the end of this month."
Sarah Pullen, a DEA spokeswoman in Los Angeles, said the purpose of the letters was to "educate" property owners at risk because they were housing marijuana dispensaries.
"By renting their property to individuals violating fed drug laws, they are in and of themselves violating federal law," Pullen said. "These are definitely meant to serve as a notice. What might happen as to the continuing investigations, we'll just have to see."
The DEA move has focused entirely on Los Angeles. Activists suspect that the logistics and timing -- more than a decade after state voters legalized medical marijuana with the passage of Proposition 215 -- is intended to thin the ranks of Los Angeles dispensaries on the eve of new city regulations. A proposed city ordinance would cap and regulate the number of outlets, which now number more than 400.
Medical marijuana activists say most of the landlords take the threat seriously and have asked the dispensaries to move out.
"Raiding dispensaries and arresting patients hasn't worked to end medical marijuana, so the DEA is trying a new tactic and claiming a new victim in this war," said Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access, a group that supports medical marijuana.
Dale Gieringer of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws said the DEA crackdown won't stop patients' marijuana use. Instead, he said, they could be driven to find drugs in the illegal market, potentially putting themselves at risk.
In recent years, courts have upheld the federal government's ability to seize assets. After the DEA raided the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in 2001, the federal government seized more than $300,000 that West Hollywood had loaned the center to purchase its building.
Gieringer said the most likely outcome of Landrum's letter would be numerous evictions and shutdowns followed by a few select forfeiture prosecutions "to scare remaining landlords."
Hap Kent, who runs Therapeutic Medicinal Health Resources in Sherman Oaks, said he hoped that the DEA would consider letting dispensaries operate for another six months, so patients weren't immediately pushed out on the streets.
"I don't want to put my landlord in jeopardy. I refuse to do that," said Kent, whose dispensary serves patients with AIDS, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries and other serious afflictions. "All we want is an amicable amount of time."
Though the possibility of eviction looms for many of the dispensaries, Kent sees a possible silver lining -- a political outcry that could get the state to finally respond to voters' wishes and take on the role of directly supplying medical marijuana.
"That's the way it should have been from the beginning," he said.