The New York Times had a story on March 2, 2011, entitled “Oakland’s Plan to Cash in on Marijuana Farms Hits Federal Roadblock,” which everybody who is contemplating becoming an owner in an Arizona medical marijuana dispensary should read.  The story said:

“an exchange of letters between the city attorney and federal law enforcement officials has made it exceedingly clear that Washington will not tolerate plans for the large-scale marijuana farms the City Council approved last July. . . . just weeks before the city was set to issue the permits, the Council voted to stall the plan after the city’s attorney, John Russo, and a county district attorney warned the Council that the marijuana cultivation ordinance thwarted state law and that city officials could be held criminally liable.

On Jan. 14, Mr. Russo wrote a letter to the United States Department of Justice seeking guidance on the city’s legal standing. In a response, Melinda Haag, United States attorney for the Northern District of California, warned that ‘individuals who elect to operate ‘industrial cannabis cultivation and manufacturing facilities’ will be doing so in violation of federal law.’ The letter went on to say that the Justice Department was ‘carefully considering civil and criminal legal remedies regarding those who seek to set up industrial marijuana growing warehouses‘.”

If you are considering becoming an owner of a medical marijuana dispensary in Arizona, you must read and consider U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Melinda Haag’s letter of February 1, 2011, to John A. Russo, the then Oakland, California, City Attorney.  Here are some pertinent quotes that every dispensary and grower of any quantity, but especially large quantities of marijuana should read and consider carefully:

I have consulted with the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General about the Oakland Ordinance.”

“growing, distributing, and possessing marijuana in any capacity, other than as part of a federally authorized research program, is a violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities.”

“The prosecution of individuals and organizations involved in the trade of any illegal drugs and the disruption of drug trafficking organizations is a core priority of the Department. This core priority includes prosecution of business enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana.”

“we will enforce the CSA vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.”

the Department is carefully considering civil and criminal legal remedies regarding those who seek to set up industrial marijuana growing warehouses in Oakland pursuant to licenses issued by the City of Oakland. Individuals who elect to operate “industrial cannabis cultivation and manufacturing facilities” will be doing so in violation of federal law. Others who knowingly facilitate the actions of the licensees, including property owners, landlords, and financiers should also know that their conduct violates federal law. Potential actions the Department is considering include injunctive actions to prevent cultivation and distribution of marijuana and other associated violations of the CSA; civil fines; criminal prosecution; and the forfeiture of any property used to facilitate a violation of the CSA.”

Clearly the Department of Justice intends to take legal action against those it believes are involved in the “industrial growing of marijuana.”  The problem for all Arizona dispensaries that intend to grow marijuana is what  is the difference between nonindustrial growing of marijuana and industrial growing of marijuana?  This problem and the risk of criminal prosecution is especially great for Arizona medical marijuana dispensaries that intend to grow excess amounts of marijuana to sell to other dispensaries.

If Arizona medical marijuana dispensary owners think they can take cover under the Department of Justice memo of October 19, 2009, think again.  This memo said only that the U.S. has a better use of its resources than to prosecute individuals (such as patients and caregivers) who are using medical marijuana in compliance with state law.  The memo does not say that the Department of Justice will not prosecute  medical marijuana dispensaries and their owners who are complying with state law.  It says just the opposite.

prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority of the Department. To be sure, claims of compliance with state or local law may mask operations inconsistent with the terms, conditions, or purposes of those laws, and federal law enforcement should not be deterred by such assertions when otherwise pursuing the Department’s core enforcement priorities.”

For a related story, see “Medical Marijuana Cultivation Plan Antagonizes Feds in Oakland — and Arizona’s Plan is Similar.”