Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

Berkeley Patients Group is Ground Zero in Federal Government’s War on Medical Marijuana

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was one of many local leaders who turned out to voice support for BPG. (Photo: Brett Wilkins)

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was one of many local leaders who turned out to voice support for BPG. (Photo: Brett Wilkins)

Berkeley Patients Group, widely regarded as a model community citizen, has become the latest target of the federal government’s war on medical marijuana dispensaries.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama vowed to deal with the issue of medical marijuana, which is legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia, with a ‘hands-off’ approach. Obama promised that he would not “be using Justice Department resources to circumvent state laws” governing medical marijuana.

But as with so many of his other promises, President Obama has broken his word, with California medical marijuana dispensaries being targeted in an aggressive federal crackdown that has seen many medicine providers shut down despite their state-legal status.

Berkeley Patients Group (BPG) is currently ground zero in the federal war on medical marijuana. Earlier this month, US Attorney Melinda Haag slapped BPG with a forfeiture lawsuit, the opening salvo in an attempt to seize its property and force it to shut its doors. BPG has already shuttered one location and moved in order to comply with a state law requiring dispensaries to be located more than 1,000 feet (305 m) from schools or playgrounds. Apparently that wasn’t good enough for Haag.

The federal government’s actions have sparked widespread community outrage throughout California, and not just among marijuana users. Earlier this month, numerous local leaders turned out at a Berkeley press conference to express their anger and disappointment at Haag and the Obama administration, which they say is wasting valuable law enforcement resources targeting businesses that are operating legally under Proposition 215, the state’s voter-approved Compassionate Use Act.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates told the press conference he believed that Attorney General Eric Holder “really messed up” by going after BPG, a business he said has “virtually no problems with law enforcement.”

“He (Holder) needs to say, ‘stop this,'” Bates said.

“Berkeley Patients Group is a model business in our community,” Berkeley city councilman Jesse Arreguín told the gathered crowd of several dozen. The DOJ crackdown “flies in the face of the will of Berkeley voters,” Arreguín added, noting that fully 85 percent of the city’s voters approved the legalization of medical marijuana.

Henry Wykowski, an attorney representing BPG, stressed that “the only people who would benefit from the closing of Berkeley Patients Group are gangs and cartels” that control black market marijuana trafficking. “This action would cause them to prey on the patients who now have a clean, safe place to get their medicine,” Wykowski added.

BPG chief operations officer Sean Luse lamented the federal government’s targeting of a business that “contributes to the local community, provides good jobs to employees and pays millions of dollars in local taxes.” Luse pledged to keep up the fight on behalf of BPG patients.

“We will not abandon our patients,” he said.

That was welcome news to the numerous medical marijuana patients in attendance.

“I don’t know what I would do without Berkeley Patients Group,” Patrona, a wheelchair-bound woman who has suffered 13 strokes, said. Patrona, who gave only her first name, had this message for the federal government: “Stay away and leave us alone.”

Jeffrey Smith, a BPG patient from Oakland, told Moral Low Ground that “the only thing that helps” manage his pain is medical marijuana. “If BPG closes, I’d be spending every bit I have” purchasing his medicine.

“We’re medicating ourselves so that we can survive,” 39-year-old BPG patient Rashan Smith of Oakland told Moral Low Ground. “Leave us alone!”

A commonly heard criticism was that the federal government could better use its resources fighting real crime or curing diseases.

“In this time of sequestration, the Boston bombings and Newtown shootings, it’s an outrageous misuse of DOJ resources to perpetuate this misguided war on medical marijuana,” California NORML director Dale Gieringer said in a statement.

The government should “use resources to cure cancer or multiple sclerosis” instead of going after medical marijuana, said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access.

Coincidentally, Attorney General Eric Holder was in Berkeley days later to deliver the commencement address to the University of California Berkeley’s graduating law students. Moral Low Ground caught up with a number of medical marijuana advocates, including BPG director Etienne Fontan and COO Sean Luse, who were gathered for a protest near the graduation ceremony.

Medical marijuana advocates, including BPG director Etienne Fontan (R), gathered at UB Berkeley, where Eric Holder was delivering a commencement address. (Photo: Brett Wilkins)

Medical marijuana advocates, including BPG director Etienne Fontan (R), gathered at UB Berkeley, where Eric Holder was delivering a commencement address. (Photo: Brett Wilkins)

Fontan, a Gulf War veteran who in addition to being BPG’s director is also a patient, vowed to keep fighting what he sees as unconstitutional government interference.

“We’re legal in the state of California, we’re legal in the city of Berkeley,” he told Moral Low Ground. “Berkeley voters have spoken. California voters have spoken. We have our 10th Amendment right that the government needs to respect, and they’re not, so we will stand up and fight for our rights until they stand down.”

“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees under an oppressive government,” Fontan said.

Luse stressed that closing BPG would be devastating for patients.

“Without us, patients would be forced into the streets,” he said, adding that “the only winners would be the drug cartels and the gangsters.”

California NORML deputy director Ellen Komp said that another beneficiary of marijuana prohibition is “the law enforcement and prison industrial complex, which profit from this at the expense of our freedom and people in need.”

Melinda Haag’s office released a statement to the Oakland Tribune that read, in part, “we continue to take a measured approach and have only pursued asset forfeiture actions with respect to marijuana retail sales operations very near schools, parks or playgrounds, at the request of local law enforcement, or in one case, because of the sheer size of its distribution operations.”

State and local lawmakers continue to make efforts to placate the feds. The latest attempt came last week when the state Senate voted 22-12 to approve a bill barring medical marijuana dispensaries from operating at a profit. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) explained that the measure seeks to “assure that patients who need medical cannabis have access to it… [and that] drug cartels and other criminals do not benefit from the lack of regulation.”

But despite these efforts, it does not appear as if the federal government is going to be backing down from its campaign to close as many California dispensaries as possible. US Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who says she is “deeply disturbed” by the crackdown, has introduced legislation “which would prohibit the use of forfeitures against lawfully operating medical cannabis dispensaries,” but her measure enjoys limited support.

Some advocates can’t help but conclude that there is a strong element of vindictiveness motivating the DOJ crackdown.

“This lawsuit is not about profiteering or violating state law, it’s a mean, vindictive move aimed at shutting down one of the oldest and well-respected dispensaries in the country,” Sherer of Americans for Safe Access opined.

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