Published on
the San Francisco Chronicle

Fed's Misguided Pot Crackdown

San Francisco Chronicle Editorial

An overzealous federal crackdown on medical marijuana once again is ramping up in the Bay Area. It won't work, it's not wanted and raises questions about the federal government's law-enforcement priorities.


The latest chapter is a civil forfeiture order posted this week on the front windows of two giant storefront operations run by Harborside Health Center in Oakland and San Jose.

Since October, more than 400 cannabis outlets across the state have closed after federal authorities sent threatening notices to operators and their landlords, marijuana advocates claim. Add to this the fact banks and credit card firms will no longer service marijuana clinics out of fear of legal trouble.

Right now, California - and the Bay Area especially - has a legal target painted on it. After signaling tolerance of medical-marijuana operations that comply with state laws, the Obama administration has moved to a broad legal attack featuring raids and litigation to shut down a medical business that voters authorized and the broad population continues to support.

No question, the state law approved by voters in 1996 leaves too much room for interpretation. Not all pot-selling operations are ethical, strictly run or concerned about a patient's health, the premise for allowing marijuana sales.

Grow operations have brought violence and crime as well as health hazards and fires. The free and easy rules for therapeutic use must be toughened.

Sacramento and local leaders, medical authorities and marijuana boosters have a duty to ameliorate these problems, a task that is taking too long. But this delay is no excuse for heavy-handed federal action that will punish patients and push pot sales back to the era of dark-alley sales.

This week's actions against Harborside point up the stakes in the dispute. U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, in charge of the local crackdown, described the two Harborside operations as "marijuana superstores" where abuses of the state's law are magnified.

Harborside, which says it has 108,000 customers is indeed huge, possibly the biggest operation in the nation. It employs over 100 people, registers $30 million in sales, and pays $3 million in taxes, according to news reports. One state tax agency estimates California pot clinic levies bring in from $58 million to $105 million per year.

The scale - and widespread social acceptance - of medical marijuana make it plain that the drug isn't going away, especially after 16 years of operation, uncontested until the last year. Along with California, 16 states plus the District of Columbia, have similar medical marijuana laws.

Instead of acknowledging this reality, Washington has chosen legal combat, insisting that a federal ban on marijuana sales is the final word. It's the height of denial.

California deserves a chance to reform a humane but flawed law. It needs Washington's cooperation, not its overboard tactics.

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