Feds subpoena Mendocino County pot records
Published: Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at 5:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 7:25 a.m.
Mendocino County officials are under federal orders to surrender records from their now-suspended medical marijuana permitting program, raising questions about the fate of those named in the permits as well as more than $800,000 in fees collected from pot growers.
But Sheriff Tom Allman, whose department was tapped to run the program approved in March 2010, said the exercise may be worthwhile if it brings some clarity to a murky legal area in which state and federal law conflicts.
"The federal government surely isn't going to tell me what their game plan is," Allman said Tuesday. "I'm certainly willing to tell them everything about the program possible, with the hopes that we're getting closer to getting an answer about the law."
The subpoenas, issued quietly last month by a federal grand jury, mark the latest volley in a federal crackdown on California's medical marijuana industry. Over the past two years, federal authorities have stepped up enforcement efforts against medical marijuana, raiding farms and shutting down dispensaries.
Critics say the U.S. Attorney's Office is attempting to undermine California law authorizing medical marijuana use. Its current stance marks a departure from the 2009 guidelines issued by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who vowed to prosecute criminals using medical marijuana claims as a front for illegal drug distribution but said federal authorities would not focus on individuals operating in compliance with state laws.
"The question is, why is the federal government using resources in this way when people are growing all over the state in a similar fashion?" asked Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans For Safe Access, a national organization. "Why is there such determination to undermine what Mendocino County was trying to do, and hopefully will continue to do in the future, once it gets the federal government off its back?"
A federal grand jury convened by the U.S. Attorney's Northern California District issued the subpoenas for the county's first-of-its-kind regulatory program last month, even though the county already had suspended the program in January under threat of a federal lawsuit.
Until then, the county ordinance permitted medical marijuana users to grow up to 25 plants and collectives to seek waivers permitting up to 99 plants, as long as they complied with a host of regulations designed to mitigate problems like odor, environmental degradation, water theft, burglary, overloaded electrical circuitry and the like.
Applicants paid $1,500 for a permit, as well as monthly inspection fees of about $500, and $50 each for individually numbered zip ties designed to identify every authorized plant.
Over the past two years, the county collected $829,726 from growers. The fees were intended to reimburse the short-staffed Sheriff's Office for the cost of administering the program, Allman said.
In the first year, there were 18 permittees. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, there were 95 entities that applied for the permits, 91 of which were approved, Allman said.
But the permit application included a waiver acknowledging it did not confer immunity from prosecution by federal authorities, who maintain that all marijuana use violates federal law despite inconsistent enforcement.
Marijuana advocates say the Obama administration has taken contradictory positions on enforcement. Court decisions have further confused the issue by bolstering medical marijuana regulations in the face of federal law.
County officials declined to say specifically what records the federal government wants or whether they are redacting any information before releasing the documents.
Most county officials declined even to confirm the existence of the subpoenas, citing instructions from Mendocino County Counsel Tom Parker, who also declined comment.
But privately, sources familiar with the subpoenas said they worry federal authorities will seize revenue raised through the program.
Some suggested the county was a victim of its own success -- that the U.S. attorney wanted to eliminate a working model for medical marijuana regulation and make a poster child out of Mendocino County so others would not follow its example.
"The program up there was the subject of national attention," said Oakland attorney Bill Panzer, co-author of Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative that legalized medical marijuana in California. " 'Frontline' did a story about it. Other communities were watching what they were doing. . . . I suspect that they (federal officials) are interested in forfeiture and taking away the money."
Supervisor Dan Hamburg, who has been a medical marijuana user and was not on the board when the code was approved, once said he feared the county's program would draw federal attention, calling it tantamount to "painting too big a target on our backs."
Now that he's on the Board of Supervisors, Hamburg said his job is to "make this come out as well as it can for the county as a whole." The greatest risk, he said, is the financial impact of the federal government's investigation.
But like some other officials who suggested some information might be redacted from any records turned over to the U.S. attorney, Hamburg said he hoped the county might find some way to safeguard the privacy of permit applicants.
Like law enforcement officials around California who have struggled to find direction in the 16 years since California voters approved medical marijuana use in defiance of federal law, Allman said he is frustrated by having made repeated efforts to get federal guidance on the matter.
Allman said he even laid out Mendocino County's permit program to Northern District U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag at a conference last year hoping to resolve any problems at that point.
"She was fully aware of what we were doing and how we were doing it, and I thought that transparency was very, very important. Because if we're going to do this -- and Attorney General Eric Holder had made the statement that the Justice Department would not interfere with any state medical marijuana process -- then we were going down a road that had never been gone down before, and that's why I tried to tell her as much about it as possible."
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or email@example.com.
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