Late yesterday, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) and seven initial co-sponsors introduced HR 6335, the States’ Medical Marijuana Property Rights Protection Act, in an attempt to stop the seizure of property from landlords of state law-compliant medical marijuana businesses. The introduction of HR 6335 comes less than a month after U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag served an asset forfeiture lawsuit against the landlord of Harborside, a medical marijuana dispensary in Rep. Lee’s district of Oakland. The Justice Department action was opposed by Rep. Lee, but it also sparked an outcry from local and state officials, including City Council members, the Oakland City Attorney, and the Board of Equalization.
“Yesterday, I introduced legislation to urge the Administration and the Congress to begin to align federal law to states’ laws that allow for safe access to medical marijuana for patients,” said Congresswoman Lee. “As a long-time supporter of the rights of patients to have safe and legal access to medicine that has been recommended to them by their doctors, this bill will provide clarification to California businesses and security for California patients. 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. 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.”
For more than a year, the Justice Department has been threatening the landlords of state law-compliant medical marijuana dispensaries with asset forfeiture proceedings if they don’t promptly evict their tenants. More than 300 such letters have been sent to property owners across California as well as in Colorado and other medical marijuana states. Though the number of actual prosecutions is far fewer, the intimidation caused by the threats has resulted in the closure of more than 400 dispensaries in California.
“Property owners have become the most recent victims in the Justice Department’s escalating attack on medical marijuana,” said Steph Sherer, Executive Director of Americans for Safe Access, the country’s largest medical marijuana advocacy group. “However, let us not forget that with the closure of these dispensaries, thousands of patients are prevented from safely obtaining a medication that has already been deemed legal to use with a physician’s approval.”
HR 6335 will prohibit the federal government from using the civil asset forfeiture statue — 21 U.S.C. 881(7) — to go after real property owners if their tenants are in compliance with state medical marijuana law. At the same time, the new law would not prevent the Justice Department from using the civil asset forfeiture statue against real property owners in connection with conduct not sanctioned by state law. While property owners have an opportunity to retrieve seized property in civil court, they are not afforded many of the constitutional rights granted to criminal defendants, such as the right to an attorney and a jury trial. In addition, the burden of proof is on the property owner to show their innocence rather than the government having to prove their guilt.
In addition to seeking the Harborside property, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag has threatened similar action against a number of Bay Area property owners. Just in San Francisco alone, nine city-permitted dispensaries have been shut down in the past few months. This week, city and state officials joined a theatrical but somber funeral procession to Haag’s office in order to draw attention to the latest two facilities — HopeNet and Vapor Room — forced to close due to threatening letters sent by Haag to their landlords.
About 100 million people — or one in three Americans — live in states with medical marijuana laws. Currently, seventeen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws authorizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
With over 50,000 active members in all 50 states, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) is the largest national member-based organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists and concerned citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research. ASA works to overcome political and legal barriers by creating policies that improve access to medical cannabis for patients and researchers through legislation, education, litigation, grassroots actions, advocacy and services for patients and the caregivers.