Legal, not legal

CANNABIS ISSUE: Reality TV, federal crackdowns, celebrity stoners: an early guide to cannabis culture in 2012


HERBWISE It's been a weird year to start a marijuana column. Shortly after we started Herbwise, which was intended to be our weekly look at marijuana culture and events, politics reared its ugly head, rendering it necessary to go to hearings at the State Building, call up California Assembly members, and occasionally wade through seas of legalese. Such is the state of cannabis under ongoing federal prohibition, but it's been a particularly dramatic year.

And in some moments, news and culture reporting melded together in the marijuana world. Take, for example, the case of Oakland's Harborside Health Center, which is often called the largest dispensary in the world (it is certainly the largest in California). After years of painstakingly crafting a working relationship with city government, the business was heavily audited by the IRS. The federal agency decided Harborside -- and 40 other California dispensaries -- fell under the jurisdiction of Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code, which denies the right for businesses involved in illegal drug trafficking to claim standard business expenditures. The collective now owes $2.4 million in back taxes, an amount that founder Steve DeAngelo asserts will bankrupt it if his business is forced to pay up.

Despite the ever-growing acceptance of the plant in the United States — a Gallup poll put the number at 50 percent in the fall of 2011 — medical marijuana is under attack by the federal government. Last fall, US Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag sent out letters to the landlords of roughly a dozen Bay Area dispensaries threatening them with civil forfeiture, or possibly four decades in prison, if they failed to move this "trafficking" off their property within 45 days. The letters targeted dispensaries considered to be in a school zone.

Most left without a fight. In San Francisco, the Tenderloin's Divinity Tree Patients Wellness Cooperative, the Market Street Collective on Upper Market, and the Mission District's Medithrive and Mr. Nice Guy were among the businesses that shut their doors, some completely and some to transition into delivery-only services. [UPDATE: Attorney Matt Kumin tells the Guardian that Divinity Tree and Medithrive have filed a "coordinated federal lawsuit" through his office in protestation of the closures]

Fairfax's sole dispensary, Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, was forced to close after 15 years of legal operation overseen by long-time cannabis activist Lynette Shaw. The 7,500-person Marin County berg's town council passed a resolution supporting the Alliance, which served as a symbol of popular support for legal cannabis in a county beset with some of the highest breast cancer rates in the country.

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and Sen. Mark Leno have been the most outspoken California politicians in coming out against the federal government's meddling with the state's cannabis. At a press conference at San Francisco's State Building in October 2011, Ammiano announced his frustration that the feds would "upset the will of the people" by curtailing safe patient access. Proud to be an elected gay official, he promised to continue to crusade for an issue that he says disproportionately affects the LGBTQ community.

One of the steps Ammiano took was to meet with Haag to discuss what could be done to assuage her concerns with the industry. "That was very, very disappointing," Ammiano commented on this initial talk. In a recent phone interview with the Guardian, he remembered that Haag implied that the order was coming from above, from high up in the Obama Administration.

Ammiano doubts her assertion that she had little discretion in the matter. "She said she was only doing what the boss was telling her to do. We had a hard time with that."

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