On Monday in Los Angeles, a former marijuana dispensary operator was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for running three facilities in California.
Medical marijuana is legal in California, but prosecutable under federal law. Aaron Sandusky is one of the only marijuana dispensary owners that have fought federal charges for distributing marijuana; others have closed up shop after threats of raids and criminal suits. Just four other defendants are currently being prosecuted in states where medical marijuana is illegal.
Those cases have garnered national attention thanks to the defendants’ active criticism of the federal government’s involvement in enforcing anti-drug laws in states where those drugs have been decriminalized or flat-out legalized.
Sandusky, 42, formerly worked in the mortgage industry before opening the G3 Holistics dispensaries in Upland, Colton, and Moreno Valley. Authorities in Upland claimed that location violated city zoning law, in apparent contradiction of California’s Medical Marijuana Program Act which prevents cities or counties from banning dispensaries. The Upland shop was ordered shuttered by the West Valley Superior Court in Rancho Cucamonga in August 2010; in November 2011, during an ongoing appeals process, DEA agents raided Sandusky’s business and confiscated both his medical marijuana supply and payroll.
Between 2010 and mid-2012, Sandusky’s G3 was shuttered and re-opened three times. According to Sandusky’s lawyer, what then happened was an appeal for help by Upland to the federal government for intervention. In June 2012, DEA agents arrested Sandusky and five others.
While members of the audience audibly sobbed and shouted, Sandusky gave a statement described as showing “no emotion.” His statement in court was a clear shot at marijuana opponents: “I want to apologize to those with me and their families who have been victimized by the federal government who has not recognized the voters of this state. I want to apologize to the families who are suffering and who have to go through this.”
The court had less sympathy. In his sentencing memo, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson ruled that Sandusky “used G3 as a means to replace the vast income he lost from the collapse of his real estate business… [the] defendant built a veneer of legitimacy around his criminal enterprise using his customers’ good-faith search for pain relief.”
“There is absolutely no altruistic component to defendant’s continued and sustained criminality,” Anderson added.
Excuse me for having doubts about the legitimacy of the federal position. Medical and decriminalized marijuana in California comes on the basis of widespread citizen support. In 2000, voters approved the initiative to eliminate jail time for first-time nonviolent drug offenders by nearly 61%. Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, decriminalized marijuana in 2010. Though a 2010 initiative to legalize marijuana failed 53%-46%, polls taken in February 2012 indicated voter support for regulating marijuana like alcohol could be as high as 62% with a mere 28% saying “definitely no.”
Last month, the New York Times noted that in much of California, smoking marijuana has “become the equivalent of a beer in a paper bag on the streets of Greenwich Village.” The times reported that approximately 47% of Californians admit to have smoked marijuana at least once, and 50% think it should be legalized. Schwarzenegger has even said that open marijuana smoking in Venice was part of what made it such a perfect place for his morning bike rides. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, widely seen as a likely future governor of the state, has openly expressed his support for legalization and called pot users he knows “incredibly upstanding citizens” who are “willing to share how they use it and not be ashamed of it.”
Anderson claimed that his hands were tied, saying that “whether you agree with the defendant’s position or not,” he was obligated to side with federal authorities on the case.
In 2008, candidate Obama pledged that he would not use “Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws” on medical marijuana. Despite that, his administration has embarked on an “interagency cannabis crackdown that goes beyond anything seen under the Bush administration,” conducting more than 170 armed raids in nine states between October 2009 and April 2012. The president defended himself to Rolling Stone in April 2012, saying “I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana … I can’t nullify federal law ... [the large-scale producers] may also be supplying recreational users.”
That crackdown does not appear to be stopping anytime soon. On Monday, Gil Kerlikowske, head of the administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, told a group of law enforcement officers that calling cannabis medicine “sends a terrible message.” Kirlikowske also claimed that the “Obama administration strongly believes [legalization] is a false choice” that is “not ground in science,” stating that medical marijuana has never been through the FDA approval process.
With marijuana now legal in Washington and Colorado, President Obama said in December that prosecuting marijuana users should not be a “top priority” of federal resources. However, it seems clear that the administration has not abandoned filing criminal charges against anyone in the supply chain – a clearly contradictory position. Marijuana decriminalization is already here; marijuana legalization is clearly a legislative likelihood within several decades. Fifty-six percent of Americans nationwide thought marijuana should be legalized and regulated like alcohol or tobacco in May 2012, opposed to just 12% in 1969.
As Norml observes, it’s still possible to get a federal life sentence for nonviolent marijuana possession, in some cases where law enforcement never even saw offenders physically handle the drugs.
The White House should order an immediate halt to federal raids on legally registered and regulated marijuana farms dispensaries in California and any other state which legalizes it, but it won’t.