by Sam Stanton, The Sacramento Bee
As the top federal prosecutor in Sacramento was announcing a new focus on huge pot farms in the Central Valley on Tuesday, a U.S. district judge delivered a separate blow to efforts to thwart crackdowns on medical marijuana.
U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. dismissed one of five suits that had been filed in federal courts last fall in a bid to win legal support for medical marijuana use in California and other states.
Burrell’s order came in a suit filed in federal court in Sacramento last November on behalf of the El Camino Wellness Center, near Arden Fair mall, and Ryan Landers, a 40-year-old Sacramento man who uses medical marijuana to alleviate suffering from AIDS and other illnesses.
The suit targeted U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michelle Leonhart and Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento.
Ironically, the decision to toss out the suit came the same day Landers was attending a luncheon of the Sacramento Press Club, where Wagner had been invited to discuss his office’s policies toward marijuana prosecutions.
The affair attracted about 100 people, many of them advocates for medical marijuana, and concluded with Landers politely rising, introducing himself and beginning to ask Wagner a question.
“I think you’re suing me, if I’m not mistaken,” Wagner said before addressing Landers’ questions.
The lawsuit dismissal came after the luncheon, and Wagner spent much of his presentation defending his office’s recent warnings against marijuana operations.
Wagner and the three other U.S. attorneys in California sparked controversy last fall when they announced charges against marijuana growers and dispensaries, as well as seizures of properties involved in the business.
Wagner repeated his stance Tuesday that federal officials are not targeting sick people who use marijuana for relief, and said he considered his office’s enforcement efforts “quite measured.”
But he added that the state is in the midst of a “green rush” of people flocking to California to exploit the market for marijuana and that evidence found in recent cases showed some dispensaries – supposedly operating as non-profits – were collecting $10,000 to $50,000 a day, much of it in cash.
“We have received information that some storefront marijuana stores here in the Sacramento area are selling marijuana at a markup of at least 200 percent over what they are buying it for,” Wagner said. “That is not about treating seriously ill people. It’s about profits.”
Wagner noted that federal law does not allow for the sale or growing of marijuana, even if California does as a result of a voter-approved medical marijuana initiative in 1996.
And he warned that the “unregulated free-for-all” that has allowed marijuana growers and merchants to make fortunes must come to an end.
In coming weeks, Wagner said, federal agents plan to focus on pot farms in the Central Valley located on agricultural fields.
“There’s been a proliferation of these large commercial grows on farmland, especially in the southern part of the valley from Stanislaus County down to Kern County,” Wagner said. “And these grows are often tens of thousands of marijuana plants.
“They’re often guarded by armed men and they are a hazard to people in those farming communities who live in or around them.”
Wagner’s message was met with mostly polite but skeptical questioning from some marijuana advocates in the audience.
One man questioned whether federal officials saying they were simply following the law was akin to Nazis using the same defense after World War II.
Another, former Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, questioned whether there was any accurate means of measuring whether the government’s war on drugs was working.
“Every metric I can find says it’s a failure,” Downing said to applause.
Wagner explained to questioners that he could not spell out to dispensary operators how much marijuana they could distribute without running afoul of prosecutors, saying that was like asking a California Highway Patrol officer how far over the speed limit a motorist can drive without risking a ticket.
His only direct effort to dodge a question came when a reporter asked if he had ever smoked marijuana and what he thought of it.
“Uh, I’ll say that I went to college,” Wagner replied.