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US Attorneys

  • by Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director December 7, 2011

    To: DEA, HIDTA, Federal task force partners in California for internal law enforcement use only. Not for public use or circulation [Editor's note: Hah! Also, this memo is only applicable in California---not Colorado, New Mexico and Maine, where these states regulate the medical cannabis industry (whereas California does not, arguably opening the door to federal incursions and prosecutions).]

    From: California United States Attorneys

    This memorandum outlines factors that all four California U.S. Attorneys Offices (the USAOs) agree may render a particular marijuana case suitable for federal prosecution. Identification of these factors is intended to assist federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in determining whether a particular marijuana case has significant potential for federal prosecution and conducting investigations in a manner that develops the best evidence to support federal prosecution (Footnote 1). The USAOS will consider for federal prosecution cases investigated by federal, state or local law enforcement agencies that implicate federal interests as reflected in the factors. Cases investigated by federal agencies will generally be given priority over cases adopted from state or local investigations. The factors listed below are relevant to the USAOs consideration of whether a marijuana case should be prosecuted federally but the presence or absence of one or more of the factors will not guarantee or preclude federal prosecution in any case. In general the federal interest will be greater in prosecuting leaders and organizers of the criminal activity as opposed to lower level workers.

    The memorandum is intended as prospective guidance only, is not intended to have the force of law and is not intended to, does not, and may not be relied on to create any right, privilege or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable by any person or entity against any type of the USAOs, DOJ or the United States.

    1) Domestic distribution cases.
    Federal prosecution of a case of domestic distribution of marijuana should generally involve at least 200 or more kilograms of marijuana and also include additional factors that reflect a clear federal interest in prosecution (Footnote 2—This guidance for domestic distribution cases does not apply to cases involving distribution within or smuggling into a federal prison.18 USC 1791). Typically the more marijuana above 200 kilograms the better the potential for federal prosecution. Domestic distribution cases involving quantities of marijuana below 200kilograms should demonstrate an especially strong federal interest or should not be prosecuted with marijuana distribution as the sole federal charge. Set forth below is a non-exhaustive list of factors that USAOs believe indicate a federal interest in a domestic distribution case.

    *Distribution by an individual or organization with provable ties to an international drug cartel or a poly-drug trafficking organization.

    *Distribution of significant quantities to persons or organizations outside California.

    *Distribution by individuals with significant prior criminal histories.

    *Distribution by individuals with provable ties to a street gang that engages in drug trafficking involving violent conduct.

    *Distribution for the purpose of funding other criminal activities.

    *Distribution near protected locations or involving underage or vulnerable people (e.g. in violation of 21 USC 859 persons under 21, 860 near schools, playground and colleges, 861 employment of persons under 18).

    *Distribution involving the use or presence of firearms or other dangerous weapons including cases that would support charges under 18 USC 924c.

    *Distribution generating significant profits that are used or concealed in ways that would support charges of federal financial crimes such as tax evasion, money laundering or structuring. Note: Generation of significant profits alone generally will not be viewed as a factor weighing in favor of federal prosecution.

    *Distribution in conjunction with other federal crimes involving violence or intimidation.

    2. Cultivation cases.

    Federal prosecution of a marijuana case involving cultivation on non-federal or non-tribal land, indoor or outdoor, should generally involve at least 1,000 marijuana plants so that the quantity necessary to trigger the ten-year mandatory minimum sentence can be clearly proven and also include additional factors that reflect a clear federal interest in prosecution. Typically, the more marijuana above 1,000 plants, the better the potential for federal prosecution. Non-federal or non-tribal land cases involving quantities below 1,000 plants should demonstrate an especially strong federal interest or should not be prosecuted with marijuana cultivation as the sole federal charge. Federal prosecution of a marijuana case involving cultivation on federal or tribal land should generally involve at least 500 marijuana plants and also include additional factors that reflect a clear federal interest in prosecution. Cases on federal or tribal land involving quantities below 500 plants will be considered if they demonstrate a strong federal interest, if the cultivation has caused significant damage to federal or tribal lands or has occurred in an area of exclusive federal jurisdiction (Footnote 3– The USAOs will consider the totality of circumstances with respect to all marijuana plant quantities in these guidelines. For example, the presence of especially mature, large or robust plants will generally weigh in favor of prosecution while the presence of seedlings or immature plants will generally weigh against prosecution). Set forth below is a non-exhaustive list of factors that the USAOs believe indicate a federal interest that may justify federal prosecution of a marijuana case involving cultivation whether on federal, tribal or other lands.

    *Cultivation causing significant environmental damage, risk to human health or interference with particularly sensitive land or significant recreational interests, ie damage to wilderness area or wildlife, danger to innocent families using a recreation area or use of toxic or dangerous chemicals.

    *Cultivation by an individual or organization with provable ties to an international drug cartel or poly-drug trafficking organization.

    *Cultivation of significant quantities on behalf or persons or organizations outside California.

    *Cultivation by individuals with significant prior criminal histories.

    *Cultivation by individuals with provable ties to a street gang that engages in drug trafficking involving violent conduct.

    *Cultivation for the purpose of funding other criminal activities.

    *Cultivation near protected locations or involving under-age or vulnerable people (eg,  in violation…

    *Cultivation involving the use or presence of fire-arms, booby traps or other dangerous weapons including cases that would support charges under 18 USC 924c.

    *Cultivation generating significant profits that are used or concealed in ways that would support charges for federal financial crimes such as tax evasion, money laundering or structuring. Note—generation of significant profits alone will not be viewed as a factor weighing in favor of federal prosecution.

    *Cultivation in conjunction with other federal crimes involving violence or intimidation


    3. Dispensary cases.

    Given California state law, prosecution of marijuana stores or “dispensaries” purporting to comply with state law face additional challenges. Federal prosecution of a case involving a marijuana store should generally involve a) provable sales through seizures or records of over 200 kilograms or 1000 plants per year. b) sales clearly in violation of state law, eg sales to persons without legitimate doctors’ recommendations, side-sales occurring outside of the store or shipping to persons outside of California (Note—selling for profit, though a violation of state l aw, typically alone will not alone satisfy this requirement), and c) additional factors that reflect a federal interest in prosecution. Set forth below is a non-exhaustive list of such additional factors. Nothing herein should be taken as a limitation on investigation by federal law enforcement to determine the existence of these factors. However, search warrants or other more intrusive investigative techniques directed at marijuana stores should be closely coordinated with the USAOs.

    *Marijuana “inventory” obtained from cultivation on federal or tribal land.

    *Targets involved in cultivation or distribution outside of the dispensary that merits federal prosecution based on consideration of factors set forth in sections 1 and 2 above.

    *Targets using profits from the dispensary to support other criminal activity.

    *Store linked to physician providing marijuana recommendations without plausible legitimate justification, eg doctor on site providing recommendation with no on-site examinations or legitimate medical procedures.

    *Targets have significant prior criminal histories.

    *Targets have provable ties to a street gang that engages in drug trafficking involving violent conduct.

    *Store operations involve the use or presence or firearms or other dangerous weapons including cases that would support charges under 18 USC 924.

    *Store generates significant profits that are used/concealed in ways that would support charges for federal financial crimes such as tax evasion, money laundering or structuring. Note–generation of significant profits alone generally will not be viewed as a factor weighing in favor of federal prosecution

    *Store operations in conjunction with other federal crimes involving violence or intimidation.

    *Store employs minors under 18 and/or sells a significant portion of marijuana to minors under the age of 21 especially where evidence that minors aren’t using for medical purposes

    4. Civil forfeiture.

    The USAOs general preference is to pursue forfeiture through criminal forfeiture or civil forfeiture filed in parallel with a criminal case. Nevertheless circumstances may arise in which civil forfeiture alone is the best option. Those cases will generally involve one or more of the following:

    *Significant forfeitable assets clearly traceable to marijuana trafficking in violation of federal criminal law that would merit federal prosecution based on consideration of factors set forth in sections 1-3 above.

    *Significant forfeitable assets clearly traceable to non-marijuana related violations of federal law such as structuring or money-laundering. Large scale “medical marijuana” cultivation operations that 1) are operating in violation of state law 2) involve real property that has been the subject of a warning letter or similar prior notice or 3) involve real property that has been the subject of a prior forfeiture proceeding arising from marijuana cultivation or a property owner who has been a claimant in such proceedings or individual targets not subject to criminal prosecution eg fugitives or persons whose involvement in marijuana trafficking is too marginal to justify criminal prosecution including off-site land lords and non-resident owners falsely claiming ignorance of tenant’s marijuana trafficking.

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director October 7, 2011

    “This is not an idle threat. … What we’re trying to do is send a message as broadly as possible. … We are serious about enforcing federal law. … We are not just talking about it, but we are doing something about it. … Prosecuting marijuana cases is a higher priority now.”
    –statements of the US Attorneys for the four federal districts in California

    We’ve seen this coming for some time, but today the gloves officially came off. No more memos filled with false promises; no more phony pledges to respect states rights, no more giggles. Like a caged animal backed into a corner, the federal government is snarling and spitting back. It has no other way to defend its morally bankrupt policy except through a show of strength and intimidation.

    California’s Top Federal Law Enforcement Officials Announce Enforcement Actions Against State’s Widespread and Illegal Marijuana Industry

    via the US Department of Justice, Eastern District of California

    SACRAMENTO, Calif.: October 7, 2011 – The four California-based United States Attorneys today announced coordinated enforcement actions targeting the illegal operations of the commercial marijuana industry in California.

    The statewide enforcement effort is aimed at curtailing the large, for-profit marijuana industry that has developed since the passage of California’s Proposition 215 in 1996.

    … While the four United States Attorneys have tailored enforcement actions to the specific problems in their own districts, the statewide enforcement efforts fall into three main categories:

    · Civil forfeiture lawsuits against properties involved in drug trafficking activity, which includes, in some cases, marijuana sales in violation of local ordinances;

    · Letters of warning to the owners and lienholders of properties where illegal marijuana sales are taking place; and

    · Criminal cases targeting commercial marijuana activities, including arrests over the past two weeks in cases filed in federal courts in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and Fresno.

    The enforcement actions being announced today are the result of the four United States Attorneys working with federal law enforcement partners and local officials across California to combat commercial marijuana activities that are having the most significant impacts in communities.

    “The actions taken today in California by our U.S. Attorneys and their law enforcement partners are consistent with the Department’s commitment to enforcing existing federal laws, including the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), in all states,” said Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

    … Laura E. Duffy, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of California, commented: “The California marijuana industry is not about providing medicine to the sick. It’s a pervasive for-profit industry that violates federal law. In addition to damaging our environment, this industry is creating significant negative consequences, in California and throughout the nation. As the number one marijuana producing state in the country, California is exporting not just marijuana but all the serious repercussions that come with it, including significant public safety issues and perhaps irreparable harm to our youth.”

    Melinda Haag, the United States Attorney for the Northern District of California, said: “Marijuana stores operating in proximity to schools, parks, and other areas where children are present send the wrong message to those in our society who are the most impressionable. In addition, the huge profits generated by these stores, and the value of their inventory, present a danger that the stores will become a magnet for crime, which jeopardizes the safety of nearby children. Although our initial efforts in the Northern District focus on only certain marijuana stores, we will almost certainly be taking action against others. None are immune from action by the federal government.

    Dozens of letters have been sent over the past few days to the owners and lienholders of properties where commercial marijuana stores and grows are located. In the Southern and Eastern Districts, the owners of buildings where marijuana stores operate have received letters warning that they risk losing their property and money derived from renting the space used for marijuana sales. In the Central District, … prosecutors have sent letters to property owners in selected cities where officials have requested federal assistance, and they plan to continue their enforcement actions in other cities as well. In the Northern District, owners and lienholders of marijuana stores operating near schools and other locations where children congregate have been warned that their operations are subject to enhanced penalties and that real property involved in the operations is subject to seizure and forfeiture to the United States.

    … The statewide coordinated enforcement actions were announced this morning at a press conference in Sacramento.

    It has been apparent for some time now that the Obama Administration is escalating its efforts to both crack down on existing above ground, medical cannabis operations in states like California, as well as to thwart the establishments of similar operations in additional states.

    So why these stepped up efforts now? The answer ought to be self-evident. The intention of these and other recent, well-publicized threats by the Obama administration is to stifle the development of a viable legal cannabis distribution industry, even in states that have enacted legislation to allow for such an industry.

    During today’s conference, all four US Attorneys affirmed that their intent is not to target individual, state-compliant medical cannabis consumers per se, but to emphasize that the Department of Justice is opposed to the regulated commerce of medical cannabis. That’s because once this industry has legitimized itself to the public and local lawmakers in California, Colorado, and elsewhere, then voters will become accustomed to safe, secure, well-run businesses that deliver consistent, reliable, tested cannabis products. They’ll appreciate the way well-regulated medical dispensaries revitalize sagging economies, provide jobs, and contribute taxes to budget-starved localities. They’ll realize all the years of scaremongering by the government about what would happen if marijuana were legal, even for sick people, was nothing but hysterical propaganda. And the voting public will eventually ask: ‘Why we don’t just legalize cannabis for everyone in a similarly responsible manner?’

    And that is a question this administration has consistently indicated that the President is unable or unwilling to answer.

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director May 4, 2011

    The Obama administration’s position on medical marijuana, circa 2009 (via the Ogden memo to all United States attorneys):

    “The prosecution of significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, and the disruption of illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking networks continues to be a core priority in the Department’s efforts against narcotics and dangerous drugs, and the Department’s investigative and prosecutorial resources should be directed towards these objectives. As a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

    The Obama administration’s position on medical marijuana, circa 2011 (via the May 2, 2011 letter sent from the office of the United States Attorney, District of Arizona, to the Arizona Department of Health Services re: the implementation of the voter-approved Medical Marijuana Program):

    “The United States Attorneys Office … will vigorously prosecute individuals and organizations that participate in the unlawful manufacturing, distribution and marketing activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.”

    A lot can change in two years — including the administration’s attitude toward the state-authorized use and distribution of cannabis for medical purposes.

    In April, NORML blogged about the U.S. Department of Justice, particularly U.S. Attorneys Jenny Durkan of Seattle and Michael Ormsby of Spokane, threatening “civil and criminal legal remedies” (read: sanctions) against Washington state citizens, including state employees, who assist with or engage in the production or distribution of medical cannabis, “even if such activities are permitted under state law.” The U.S. Attorneys’ threats came in response to an inquiry from Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, who most likely was seeking ‘political cover’ so that she could publicly ‘justify’ her veto of legislation (SB 5073) that sought to license and regulate the dispensing of medical cannabis to qualified persons, and would have enacted additional legal protections for patients who voluntarily participated in a statewide registry. The threats worked; Gov. Gregoire cited them in her veto statement Friday.

    In fact, the threats worked so well, that in recent days U.S. Attorneys in other states with active medical marijuana programs have begun issuing similar menacing statements.

    Last week in Colorado, where state regulators have licensed over 800 state-licensed medical cannabis dispensaries, U.S. Attorney John Walsh sent a letter to the state’s Attorney General alleging that the federal Justice Department will “vigorously” prosecute individuals or organizations engaged in “unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.” A spokesman for Walsh’s office adds, “In the eye of the federal government, there’s only one type of marijuana. And marijuana is a Schedule I controlled [federally prohibited] substance.”

    Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke fired off a similarly worded letter this week to Will Humble, the director of the state Department of Health Services, which is overseeing the implementation of Proposition 203. Under the law, which was approved by voters last fall and was enacted on April 15, the state must register qualified patients who have a doctor’s recommendation for cannabis and also license dispensaries to provide it to them. However, according to Burke, said dispensaries that are compliant with the state’s law will “not [be] protect[ed] from [federal] criminal prosecution, asset forfeiture, and other civil penalties.”

    Finally, in Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced this week that he is suspending the state’s nascent medical marijuana distribution program, set to begin this June. In March, the representatives from the Rhode Island Department of Health selected three applicants to operate the state’s first-ever, government licensed medical cannabis dispensaries. (The dispensaries program was initially approved by lawmakers in 2009, but the winning applicants were not decided upon until two years later.) Predictably, Chafee’s abrupt change of heart came after receiving a hand-delivered letter from U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha Friday threatening to prosecute civilly and/or criminally those involved in the dispensary program.

    So what’s the impetus for the Obama administration’s sudden decision to play rhetorical hard ball? NORML Outreach Coordinator and podcaster Russ Belville speculates:

    “Mr. Obama’s … true intention is to stifle the development of any viable legal cannabis distribution industry. By sending threat letters to Rhode Island and Arizona, states that have created clear and unambiguous laws for medical cannabis providers to follow, it is obvious that Mr. Obama isn’t opposed to medical cannabis, per se, but terribly opposed to medical cannabusiness.

    Belville adds: “If (medical cannabusiness) establish (themselves), people will become accustomed to safe, secure, well-run businesses that deliver consistent, reliable, tested cannabis products. They’ll appreciate the way these places revitalize sagging economies, provide jobs, and contribute taxes to budget-starved localities. They’ll realize all the scaremongering by the government about what would happen if marijuana was legal, even for sick people, was hysterical propaganda. [And] they’ll begin to wonder why we don’t just legalize cannabis for everyone, create more jobs, raise more revenue, and use these established businesses as the distribution points.”