Medical marijuana advocates have filed lawsuits in California's four federal judicial districts aimed at quickly winning court orders to halt the U.S. attorneys from closing dispensaries.
The lawsuits are the second legal challenge to the stepped-up enforcement efforts that the four prosecutors announced last month at a high-profile joint news conference in Sacramento.
Matt Kumin, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuits, said that Tuesday the plaintiffs plan to ask the judges assigned to the cases for temporary restraining orders halting the crackdown.
"The government has gone well down the road to allowing medical cannabis in the United States," he said. "It can't reverse itself now, particularly because of the promises it made to the American people and the federal judiciary. They're stuck."
The 13-page lawsuits argue that the federal government's threats to prosecute dispensary owners and their landlords conflict with an agreement that led a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit by patients with the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz. In that case, the government said it would not use federal resources against medical marijuana patients who complied with state law.
"You tell people, 'Hey, you can do this,' and they rely on it, and the next thing you know, they can get arrested. It's entrapment," said Kumin, a San Francisco lawyer working with a team of attorneys who specialize in medical marijuana litigation.
The lawsuits were filed Friday and Monday against U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, Drug Enforcement Administration head Michele Leonhart and each of the four federal prosecutors, including U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. in Los Angeles. Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for Birotte and the Justice Department, said he could not comment on the lawsuits.
At their news conference, the U.S. attorneys said they would target dispensary operators and growers who were violating state law, which prohibits for-profit sales. The prosecutors have taken different enforcement approaches, including sending letters to dispensary landlords threatening to seize their property. Birotte has focused his efforts in the Central District on shutting down medical pot shops in cities that have banned them.
In the lawsuit filed in the Central District, the plaintiffs are Conejo Wellness Center Cooperative in Agoura Hills; the dispensary's landlord, Executive Center of Simi Valley; and Billie Jo Maisonet, who has a doctor's recommendation to use medical marijuana.
Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group that filed a separate lawsuit last month, said he was surprised that more lawsuits have not already been filed. "We certainly welcome other challenges," he said. "If any of us win on any theory, we're all better off."
Kumin said he hopes to reach a compromise with the federal government on a California medical marijuana program it can support. He noted that federal prosecutors have not issued similar threats in Colorado, which has opted for heavier regulation of medical marijuana sales.
He said only a few pot collectives and landlords put up money for the suits. Many dispensary operators are unwilling to take on the government publicly, he said. "Everybody's gone underground."
The lawsuit charges that the heightened enforcement "will eviscerate and likely eradicate" California's established medical marijuana system, which relies heavily on storefront dispensaries.
"California now has an entrenched cultivation and distribution network of medical cannabis supplying approximately 1,000,000 patients throughout state," the lawsuit says. It adds that the network generates annual revenue estimated by advocates at between $1.5 billion and $4.5 billion, and annual sales taxes of $50 million to $100 million, according to state estimates.