Faced with growing chaos in the state’s medical marijuana industry, this city in Northern California passed an ordinance in 2008 that meticulously detailed, over 11 pages, how the drug could be grown and sold here.
Humboldt Medical Supply, a dispensary here in Humboldt County regarded as a law-abiding model that has given free cannabis to elderly patients, became the first to obtain a permit in 2010. The Sai Center, whose owner has a history of flouting city regulations and was described by the mayor as running his business “purely for profit,” was rejected last year.
Humboldt Medical quickly closed shop after federal prosecutors began shuttering hundreds of dispensaries in October in one of the biggest crackdowns on medical marijuana since its legalization in California in 1996. The Sai Center’s owner moved locations and has defied the authorities by continuing to operate, most recently out of his mother’s house. City officials, afraid of becoming targets themselves of the prosecutors, have suspended the applications of two other dispensaries that were expected to be approved.
“We feel the federal government’s actions have had a very negative effect,” said Mayor Michael Winkler. “We’re very upset with their actions.”
Like their counterparts in many other municipalities that have regulated medical marijuana on their own, Arcata officials say the federal offensive has brought renewed chaos to the medical marijuana industry. The federal authorities, their critics say, have indiscriminately targeted good and bad dispensaries, sometimes putting the best ones out of business. The crackdown, the critics say, has made it difficult for qualified Californians to obtain marijuana for medical use and is just pushing buyers into the black market.
Acting on federal law, which considers all possession and distribution of marijuana to be illegal, California’s four United States attorneys, working with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, have shut down at least 500 dispensaries statewide in the last eight months by sending letters to operators, landlords and local officials, warning of criminal charges and the seizure of assets. The United States attorneys said the dispensaries were violating not only federal law but also state law, which requires operators to be primary caregivers to their customers and distribute marijuana only for medical purposes.
“We’re not concerned in prosecuting patients or people who are legitimate caregivers for ill people, who are in good faith complying with state law,” said Benjamin B. Wagner, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of California. “But we are concerned about large commercial operations that are generating huge amounts of money by selling marijuana in this essentially unregulated free-for-all that exists in California.”
On a recent afternoon, an employee was working out of a single room in the back of the blue, single-story house, sitting behind a large desk, surrounded by marijuana plants and three large safes. Through the employee, Mr. Gasparas declined to be interviewed.
The employee, who declined to give his name but said he was majoring in botany at Humboldt State University here, said the federal offensive was “all political.” The dispensary, he said, was helping the ill who would otherwise buy marijuana from “an unsafe source.” He said he himself first obtained a doctor’s approval to use medical marijuana because he had anxiety.
At the Humboldt Patient Resource Center, one of the two dispensaries whose application was delayed because of the federal crackdown, a steady stream of customers — young men but also middle-aged men and women — came in to buy various strains of marijuana, including those called Blue Dream, Lemon Diesel and Oh Sour Head, at $40 for an eighth of an ounce.
Mariellen Jurkovich, the dispensary’s director, said she had spent $200,000 to comply with the city’s marijuana ordinance. Federal prosecutors had not sent her a warning letter, but she remained worried.
“Even if I eventually get a permit from the city, I don’t think I’m protected as long as the federal law doesn’t change,” she said. “I don’t know who they’ll go after and why.”