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Lawmakers urge DOJ to back off pot dispensaries

Four Bay Area House members are urging the area’s top federal prosecutor to halt what they say is ongoing “hostility toward dispensaries” that provide marijuana under the state’s medical marijuana law.

Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; George Miller, D-Martinez; Eric Swalwell, D-Pleasanton; and Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz, sent a letter to Melinda Haag, U.S. Attorney for California’s Northern District. In says, in part:

“It is counterproductive and economically prohibitive to continue a path of hostility toward dispensaries. Moreover, it appears to directly counter the spirit of Deputy Attorney General Cole’s memo, and is in direct opposition to the evolving view toward medical marijuana, the will of the people and, by now, common sense. Additionally, the State of California has also received legislative direction and guidelines from California Attorney General Kamala Harris on responsibly delivering medical marijuana.

“It is our view that the intent of the Justice Department is to not enforce its anti-marijuana laws in conflict with the laws of states that have chosen to decriminalize marijuana for medical and recreational uses. California understands the urgency toward putting together a statewide regulatory system, and we can all be helpful in that regard, but some municipalities, including Oakland, have already done an extraordinary job regulating medical marijuana. California is moving in the correct direction in a measured manner, and should be given the opportunity to do so.”

Several Bay Area dispensaries have been targeted by federal prosecutors, and Alameda County supervisors this month adopted a resolution urging the federal government to back off.

In a news release announcing the lawmakers’ letter, Lee said it’s “far past time for commonsense and economic sense to prevail in policies and actions related to medical cannabis dispensaries that serve the patients in our communities. This harassment and constant threat of prosecution should end.”

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Steinberg wants Calderon 86ed from committees

State Sen. Ron Calderon – embroiled in an FBI corruption probe – should be removed from all his committee assignments, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg recommended Wednesday.

“I am asking the Senate Rules Committee to temporarily remove Senator Ron Calderon as chair of the Senate Insurance Committee, pending resolution of the United States Attorney’s investigation into his conduct,” Steinberg, D-Sacarmento, said in a statement issued Wednesday morning. “I will also ask the Committee to temporarily remove Senator Calderon from all other committee assignments, pending the same investigation.”

“I do not make this request lightly, nor do I judge the truth of the publicly reported allegations,” Steinberg continued. “I am concerned, however, about keeping Senator Calderon in his positions. The allegations, though yet unproven, are serious enough to cloud any interactions the Senator might have with colleagues, advocates, and the public on issues within his jurisdiction.”

The claim that an elected official took money and favors for official acts “is perhaps the most serious breach of the public trust and the institution in which they serve,” Steinberg said. “In other highly sensitive public situations that do not involve proven allegations of misconduct, public employers take similar actions. The public and the Senate deserve no less protection in the current situation.”

Calderon, D-Montebello, chairs the Senate Insurance Committee and sits on the Banking and Financial Institutions Committee, the Environmental Quality Committee, the Governmental Organization Committee, and the Select Committee on Procurement. Steinberg also wants to eliminate the Select Committee on California’s Film and Television Industry, which Calderon chairs but which has not convened since its creation earlier this year.

The Rules Committee will consider Steinberg’s recommendations at 1 p.m. Tuesday in Room 113 of the State Capitol.

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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.

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House won’t act to stop medical marijuana raids

The House again tonight rejected a bipartisan amendment to forbid the Justice Department from interfering with states’ implementation of their medical marijuana laws, declining to rebuke the Obama Administration for recent raids in states including California.

The vote was 163-262, after about 43 minutes of debate earlier in the day. All Bay Area members voted in favor of the amendment.

Reps. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, now have offered this amendment to the Justice Department’s appropriations bill six times over the past decade; their high-water mark was 165 “aye” votes in 2007. Joining them in offering this year’s amendment were Reps. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, and Sam Farr, D-Carmel.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use; the Connecticut and New Hampshire legislatures recently passed medical marijuana bills now awaiting their governors’ signatures. Federal law, however, still bans all marijuana cultivation, distribution, sale and use.

The Obama Administration has taken a multi-pronged approach to cracking down on medical marijuana providers. In some cases, U.S. Attorneys have threatened dispensaries’ landlords and banks with prosecution; in others, the IRS has rejected standard tax deductions from medical marijuana businesses operating in compliance with state law. And in some cases, such as that of Oaksterdam University last month, federal agents have raided medical-marijuana-related businesses.

President Obama has said the federal government isn’t pursuing medical marijuana users, but rather is focusing upon large-scale commercial operations that may be supplying recreational users as well. But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, issued a statement last week expressing “strong concerns about the recent actions by the federal government that threaten the safe access of medicinal marijuana to alleviate the suffering of patients in California.”

Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, earlier Wednesday had issued a statement in support of the amendment. “History is calling on President Obama to protect terminally ill patients from suffering, and he is dangerously close to falling on the wrong side,” Piper said. “He will continue to pay a political price as long as his administration continues to waste taxpayer money undermining state law.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which has begun organizing workers at medical marijuana businesses, also had issued a statement saying that “at a time when millions of hardworking Americans are out of work and still struggling to make ends meet, the use of taxpayer money for the misguided targeting and prosecution of an industry that provides Americans with good middle class jobs with benefits is counterproductive. The U.S. Justice Department should not use the fewer resources it has to focus on targeting patients and dispensaries abiding by state law.”

UPDATE @ 9:43 A.M. THURSDAY: Piper this morning said the fact that most Democrats and nearly 30 Republicans voted for the amendment “shows that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder are in political hot water for their attacks on patients and providers. We’ve seen major push-back from elected officials at the local and state level; now we’re seeing it at the national level.”

Asked how a slight drop from 2007’s support constitutes “major push-back,” he replied that yesterday’s vote “is still a third of the House, and when you break down the numbers, 7 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats voted for the amendment in 2007 and 11 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats voted for it last night.”

“Support is rising, but because Republicans are largely hostile and have more seats now than in 2007 the overall vote outcome looks similar,” he said. “Overall, I feel good. This was an amendment offered to a funding bill, with no hearing, and relatively little debate. So I consider the 163 to be the floor.”

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Committee approves new NorCal U.S. Attorney

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously today to approve the nomination of Melinda Haag to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, this region’s top federal prosecutor. President Barack Obama nominated Haag, 48, to the post in March; she now awaits a vote of the full Senate.

“She has more than two decades of experience handling white collar crime cases, which will be a tremendous asset to the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in a news release; Boxer recommended Haag’s nomination to the White House after she was interviewed and vetted by a bipartisan advisory committee.

Melinda HaagHaag since 2003 has been a partner at San Francisco-based Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; she’s in the White Collar Criminal Defense and Corporate Investigations Group, which handles cases involving fraud, antitrust violations, environmental crimes, health care fraud and other corporate matters.

Earlier she was recruited by former U.S. Attorney and current FBI Director Robert Mueller to serve in the San Francisco U.S. Attorney’s Office, where she headed the White Collar Crime Unit and was the deputy chief of the General Crimes Unit. Haag also has worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California in Los Angeles. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California San Diego and a law degree at from the UC Berkeley Boalt Hall Law School.

The Northern District of California stretches from the Monterey Coast in the south to California’s northern border with Oregon and from the Pacific Ocean in the west nearly to Sacramento in the east. More than 7.3 million people live in the district.

UPDATE @ 12:54 P.M. FRIDAY: The full Senate confirmed Haag later yesterday by unanimous consent, without debate.

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No charges against Don Perata?

I’m hearing that Acting United States Attorney Lawrence G. Brown of Sacramento is preparing to issue a statement saying he’s declining to file any charges against former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland — thus spelling an almost-certain end to a years-long corruption investigation in which nobody was ever charged.

You’ll recall that federal prosecutors for California’s Northern District in San Francisco decided to take a pass on the case several months ago, so the FBI took its evidence — reams of subpoenaed or seized documents, interviews with potential witnesses and so forth — to Brown in the Eastern District. The Don as well as his family, friends and former staffers were not amused, saying the FBI was venue shopping for its non-existent case.

Looks like the Perata for Mayor 2010 campaign is about to get a big boost. I’ll be following this as the day progresses…

UPDATE @ 12:55 P.M.: Yep, it’s all true — read all about it here, and stay tuned for updated versions throughout the day.

UPDATE @ 5:25 P.M.: David Dayen at Calitics wants to know if The Don will give back the $1.9 million he diverted from his Leadership California committee – ostensibly created to support Democratic campaigns and causes – into his legal defense fund late last year. (And hey, what about the $450,000 he got from the California Democratic Party?) Fat chance, David… looks as if it’s all gone into lawyers’ pockets by now. At least the Fair Political Practices Commission has now cracked down on these smelly transfers.