Medical marijuana advocates in California sued the federal government Thursday in an effort to quash a recent crackdown on the state's storefront pot dispensaries, claiming government officials have overstepped their constitutional authority by not respecting how local officials have chosen to regulate pot stores and growers.
The lawsuit filed in San Francisco by the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access states that recent raids of licensed dispensaries and letters warning city officials they could be prosecuted for trying to regulate medical marijuana cultivation and sales constitute an illegal power grab under the 10th Amendment. The amendment awards to states legislative authority not explicitly reserved for the federal government.
"ASA does not challenge the congressional authority to enact laws criminalizing the possession and/or control of marijuana, as this issue has been resolved in the government's favor," Americans for Safe Access Chief Counsel Joe Elford wrote in the complaint. "It is, rather, the government's tactics, and the unlawful assault on state sovereignty they represent, that form the gravamen of ASA's claim."
The suit names Attorney General Eric Holder and Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for Northern California, as defendants. Haag's spokesman, Jack Gillund, declined to comment on the case.
Earlier this month, the four federal prosecutors in California announced a broad effort to close pot clubs they claim are located too near places where children gather or are fronts for drug dealing. They have sent letters to landlords renting space to medical marijuana dispensaries they could have their property seized for aiding and abetting criminal enterprises.
Many of the 38 Southern California pot outlets that were targeted in the letters already have closed because landlords, threatened with criminal charges or seizure of their assets, were given just two weeks to evict their tenants. Property owners in the rest of the state were given six weeks to comply.
The lawsuit filed Thursday on behalf of Americans for Safe Access' 20,000 California members does not contradict the right of federal prosecutors to go after property owners. Instead, it challenges their authority to "coerce" local government officials into abandoning procedures for licensing and regulating dispensaries and growers, Elford said.
Since the U.S. attorneys announced their crackdown, officials in Sacramento and Eureka, for example, have suspended plans to issue operating permits to dispensaries that meet specific criteria.
"By directly interfering with the legislative function of the state, they force the state to criminalize activities they do not want to criminalize," Elford said.
Along with an injunction barring the Department of Justice from interfering with dispensaries that meet state and local regulations, the suit seeks the return of 99 marijuana plants that were seized during an Oct. 13 raid of a medical marijuana collective that operated with oversight from the Mendocino County sheriff's department.
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