Why? - Page 2

San Francisco did everything right. Now the feds are shutting down legal marijuana in town. And nobody can figure out what happened

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Medical marijuana supporters marched on the Federal Building on Aug. 1 to protest the recent crackdown.
PHOTO BY TIM DAW

"Although all marijuana stores are illegal under federal law, I decided to use our limited resources to address those that are in close proximity to schools, parks and playgrounds and operations so large that they constitute marijuana superstores. I hope that those who believe marijuana stores should be left to operate without restriction can step back for a moment and understand that not everyone shares their point of view, and that my office has received many phone calls, letters and emails from people who are deeply troubled by the tremendous growth of the marijuana industry in California and its influence on their communities."

But in San Francisco, where more than 80 percent of residents consistently support medical marijuana in polls and at the ballot box, most people don't share Haag's point of view. And city officials contest many of her claims, from saying the dispensaries are "left to operate without restriction" to her implication that they promote crime or endanger children to the haphazard way she has targeted dispensaries to the characterization that many people are "deeply troubled by the tremendous growth of the marijuana industry."

In fact, to talk to city officials, virtually nothing Haag says is true.

"We're not getting nuisance complaints [about the dispensaries]," Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, the city's medical director who oversees regulation of the dispensaries by the Department of Public Health, told the Guardian. "We've had very few complaints over the years and good cooperation with the storefront part of the regulations."

Almost across the board, city officials and club operators praise one another and the cooperative relationship they've established over the last four years. Some of San Francisco's biggest dispensaries have somehow avoided Haag's wrath, but their once-open operators are now afraid to speak publicly, warily checking the mailbox each day. A thriving industry eager to pay its taxes and submit to regulation is being driven back underground, with all the uncertainty and hazards that creates.

"The question everyone is asking: Why here, why now, why these businesses? Nobody knows the answer," Bhatia said. "We're left to speculate and guess about motives."

MULTI-AGENCY ATTACK

The federal crackdown has been stunning in both its speed and breadth, with various federal agencies coordinating their attacks. The IRS is auditing the biggest clubs and denying write-offs for routine business expenses, the DEA is threatening asset forfeiture efforts, and Haag and the DOJ are threatening prison time and court injunctions.

Underlying all of that is President Barack Obama, who pledged not to use federal resources to go after those in compliance with state law in the 17 states where medical marijuana is legal. Then, last year, Attorney General Eric Holder suddenly announced a new policy: "It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal."

When we sought an explanation and clarification from the White House Communications Office about why well-established medical marijuana collectives carefully operating under California law were suddenly deemed "drug traffickers" that wouldn't be tolerated, they refused to answer and referred us to a statement Obama made to Rolling Stone magazine.

"What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana -— and the reason is, because it's against federal law. I can't nullify congressional law," Obama told the magazine.

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