Lee offers bill to stop medical pot asset seizures

A Bay Area congresswoman’s new bill would bar federal prosecutors from filing civil lawsuits to seize property from landlords whose tenants comply with states’ medical marijuana laws.

Barbara Lee (Dec-2010)“The people of California have made it legal for patients to have safe access to medicinal marijuana and, as a result, thousands of small business owners have invested millions of dollars in building their companies, creating jobs, and paying their taxes,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, said in a statement issued Friday by Americans for Safe Access.

“We should be protecting and implementing the will of voters, not undermining our democracy by prosecuting small business owners who pay taxes and comply with the laws of their states in providing medicine to patients in need,” she said.

U.S. Attorneys for more than a year have been threatening landlords of medical marijuana dispensaries with civil asset forfeiture proceedings if they don’t kick their tenants out – more than 300 such letters have gone to property owners in California, Colorado and some of the 15 other states with medical marijuana laws.

The civil asset forfeiture law affords property owners a chance to retrieve seized property in civil court, but they’re not afforded many of the constitutional rights granted to criminal defendants, such as the right to an attorney and a jury trial. And the burden of proof is on the property owner to show their innocence rather than the government having to prove their guilt.

Lee’s HR 6335 would prohibit the Justice Department from using civil asset forfeiture to go after properties so long as the medical marijuana tenants comply with state law; those in violation of state law would still be fair game. Among the bill’s eight original cosponsors are Rep. Mike Honda, D-Campbell, and Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont.

Relatively few of the prosecutors’ threats have led to actual civil asset forfeiture cases, but the pressure has caused many landlords to force dispensaries to close.

HarborsideBut Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for California’s Northern District, did serve an asset forfeiture lawsuit last month against the landlord of Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, a dispensary in Lee’s district. This wasn’t the first federal attack on Harborside: The dispensary already had appealed an Internal Revenue Service’s finding that it owed $2.5 million in back taxes because it can’t deduct standard business expenses such as payroll and rent while violating the federal ban on marijuana.

Haag has threatened civil asset forfeiture actions against landlords of several other Bay Area dispensaries as well. In San Francisco this week, local officials joined a “funeral procession” to Haag’s office to mark the closing of two more dispensaries that were forced to close due to her pressure on their landlords.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • JAFO

    I’m willing to accept that a few patients with chronic medical conditions might actually derive some therapeutic benefit from the use of marijuana. However, law enforcement officials have long complained about the countless other instances where so-called “medical marijuana” dispensaries simply serve as a means by which garden variety potheads, with the help of unethical physicians who rubber stamp phony “prescriptions,”, secure their illicit supplies.

  • Elwood

    What JAFO said!

  • Elwood

    I’m sure Lee’s latest lunatic bill will receive raucous applause in the Republican controlled House.

  • RR senile columnist

    Dr Lee, head of the Head lobby, only invokes Prop. results she agrees with.

  • JohnW

    Out of curiosity, I’ve stood across the street from a couple of “dispensaries” in SF and watched these “patients” come and go. MMMA. Medical Marijuana My Aunt!

    If California had implemented the law as the voters intended, the Feds would have left us alone by making it a low priority enforcement matter, as Obama had indicated. Instead, it got so bad that now Los Angeles is shutting down dispensaries by the dozens, on their own, not because of Fed intervention.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    Don’t step on the grass, DoJ!