Tag: California

The Next Federal Crackdown Could Look a Lot Like the Last One

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ desire to slow or stop America’s experiment with marijuana legalization was obvious well before he gave the nod to federal prosecutors to go after state-legal cannabis. But his latest move, rescinding the Cole memo, has triggered speculation over what a Trump administration crackdown would look like.

Recent history might help answer that question. Crackdowns have happened before—and more recently than most people remember. Although they failed to permanently hobble the cannabis industry, enforcement actions from 2011 to 2013 offer examples of what a federal crackdown might look like.

One big lesson: Enforcement doesn’t always involve door-busting, SWAT-style raids. In the last major crackdown in California, the feds simply snuck in through the mailbox.

RELATED STORY

Cities Swap SWAT-Style Dispensary Raids for Softer Approach

Back in September 2011, California’s medical dispensaries were booming when a number of commercial property owners began to receive foreboding letters. The envelopes were thin, containing just a few sheets of paper, but there was cause for concern well before the first seal was broken: The envelopes bore the return address of the local United States attorney.

Nearly all the recipients were landlords who leased space to medical marijuana dispensaries, which in the years prior had popped up en masse across most of the state. Though many of the property owners had never so much as touched cannabis, they found themselves the target of the biggest attack on America’s marijuana legalization movement in years.

If it was meant to halt the legalization movement’s growing momentum, the crackdown backfired.

The landlords were given a choice: Either kick out their dispensary tenants or risk losing everything. Those who didn’t evict cannabis operators, the letters warned, could see their properties and other assets seized, and be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.

It was an innovative strategy. And for a while, it worked.

Each US attorney took a different approach, but each saw success. Across California, hundreds of dispensaries closed. In some parts of the state, legal marijuana storefronts vanished entirely. Intimidated elected officials took a step back. Medical marijuana regulatory programs were canceled, and an ambitious plan to unionize the cannabis industry screeched to a halt. Patients protested. Prohibitionists cheered.

But the great California cannabis crackdown didn’t last. Dispensaries disappeared only to re-emerge as clandestine delivery services. The state’s oldest and largest dispensaries, such as Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, challenged the feds in court—and won. In the middle of it all, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized cannabis for all adults, drawing the Justice Department’s attention away from California.

If it was meant to halt the legalization movement’s growing momentum, the crackdown backfired.

Less than a year later, in August 2013, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued guidance to US attorneys across the country. In a nonbinding memo, prosecutors were advised not to interfere in state-legal cannabis programs unless they ran into specific problems, such as diversion out of state, violence, or sales to minors. The document, which became known as the Cole memo, effectively de-prioritized federal cannabis enforcement in legal states.

By that time, the California asset forfeiture letters had stopped coming. In 2016, with full legalization on the ballot in California, more than a few cannabis advocates and entrepreneurs celebrated a triumph.

RELATED STORY

The Cole Memo: What Is It and What Does It Mean?

Then came Election Day, which ended with both an exclamation point and a question mark. Passing Prop. 64 made California the largest legal-cannabis state in the nation, but electing Donald Trump—whose views on cannabis seemed friendly but were largely unknown—caught the industry off guard.

Cautious optimism dissolved later that month, when Trump tapped then-Sen. Jeff Sessions as US attorney general. For legal cannabis, the selection of Sessions—who once rejected by his peers for a federal judgeship after joking that Ku Klux Klan members were “OK, until I found out they smoked pot”—was a worst-case scenario.

Since taking office, Sessions has steadily stoked more fears, openly deriding data that suggest cannabis could help ease the opioid crisis and declaring marijuana “only slightly less awful” than heroin.

For the first year, Sessions’ attacks came in speeches or offhand remarks. Then, on Jan. 4, he finally took action, rescinding the Cole memo and returning the nation—or the Justice Department, at least—back to its 2012 stance on cannabis.

RELATED STORY

A Top Cannabis Lawyer on What Losing the Cole Memo Means

It’s now up to the state’s four federal prosecutors to decide whether to pursue California cannabis businesses. If they do, they’ll be bound by the same constraints that faced the last crackdown: competing policy priorities, a limited budget, and overstretched prosecutors.

Meanwhile, the cannabis movement is larger, better funded, and more politically popular than ever. Many entrepreneurs say the opportunity for the Justice Department to stop legalization has come and gone. The DEA has only about 4,000 agents worldwide, and most US attorneys’ offices have relatively small staffs. It’s unlikely such a force could dismantle California’s industry, let alone the thriving cannabis sectors in multiple other states.

Sessions has heard all this before. He does not appear to care. The Trump administration has demonstrated a willingness to punish state and local officials who defy the White House’s agenda, and representatives from legal-cannabis states such as California and Washington have frequently been a thorn in the president’s side.

As the 2011-2013 California crackdown showed, even if the feds don’t have the army of agents necessary to wage an all-out drug war, they can still do significant damage to business plans, public opinion, and lawmakers’ attitudes with little more than lawyers and letterhead.

Within a year of the first letters, “hundreds” of dispensaries throughout the state had closed. There were no official tallies, but according to California NORML, thousands of legal jobs were lost, and tens of millions in local and state tax revenue disappeared with them.

RELATED STORY

Cannabis Jobs Count: Legal Marijuana Supports 149,304 Americans

Yet from the beginning, the crackdown was both erratic and arbitrary.

It wasn’t always clear who was being targeted—or why. In San Francisco, according to then-US Attorney Melinda Haag of the Northern District, only dispensaries within 1,000 feet of a park or a school—the circumference inside which drug dealing triggered stiff mandatory minimums—were targeted. But it soon became clear that protecting children wasn’t the only criterion.

Several first-generation dispensaries—known for “compassionate” programs that supported patients who were low-income, disabled, or veterans—got the axe. Meanwhile, slick newcomers who landed gushing writeups in the New York Times’ style section went untouched.

In the city’s notorious Tenderloin, tiny dispensaries shut down while street dealers up the street sold prescription pain pills, heroin, and methamphetamines unmolested.

Across the bay, in Berkeley, where Haag and her family lived, only one of the city’s three dispensaries received a letter. (It was chosen, rumor had it, because Haag drove past it on her commute to and from work.)

RELATED STORY

Here’s Where US Attorneys Stand on Cannabis Enforcement

Laura Duffy, then the US attorney for California’s Southern District, went as far as to threaten jail time for newspapers and other media personnel who ran cannabis-related advertisements. No outlets were ever prosecuted, but many advertisers scuttled contracts that helped keep media in business.

In a Sessions-led crackdown, the uneven approach to enforcement is likely to return. Absent a directive from Washington, DC, and the resources to accomplish it, each US attorney will be responsible for taking action—or not.

Some US attorneys named by Sessions to succeed Obama-era appointees have already aired their anti-cannabis views. McGregor Scott, Sessions’ new man in Sacramento, earned a reputation for pursuing harsh sentences against marijuana operators in the state’s cannabis-saturated Eastern District. Luke Scarmazzo, a Modesto man sentenced to prison for 20 years under a statute designed to pursue hardened drug-cartel capos, was put behind bars by Scott (and denied clemency by Obama).

Rural areas under Scott’s watch, such as Nevada County, where sheriff’s deputies are raiding bigger and bigger marijuana plantings, seem the likeliest locations for federal activity. As with the last crackdown, US attorneys are likely to select symbolic targets meant to maximize deterrence.

RELATED STORY

The Great Cannabis Clash of Calaveras County

Any federal enforcement actions against legal cannabis is likely to be not only a battle of strength but also one of endurance. While federal prosecutors found early success threatening asset forfeiture in 2011, over time they began to lose ground.

Major dispensaries such as Harborside, Berkeley Patients Group, and Shambhala Healing Center challenged eviction proceedings filed by their landlords and received state judges’ blessing to stay. They weren’t violating the terms of their leases, the reasoning went, so there was no cause to remove them.

When the Justice Department responded by filing asset forfeiture proceedings, those also failed. In Shambhala’s case, the dispensary’s landlord managed to settle its case for $150,000 after a state judge nullified the eviction notice. By 2013, Harborside—still in business and with its own asset forfeiture proceeding locked up in pretrial motions—felt confident enough to commission a short video mocking Haag in caricature.

Pushback had also grown in the form of public protests. In the Northern District, activists were harrying Haag so much that she began to cancel public appearances.

The crackdown was losing steam—and fast. But it would take three more years and Congress’s passage of a budget amendment (the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, now known as Rohrabacher-Blumenauer) forbidding the DOJ funding from pursuing state-legal cannabis for the feds to finally—if not publicly—admit defeat.

RELATED STORY

Federal Court Bars Justice Department From Prosecuting Medical Cannabis

By then, California’s legalization measure, Prop. 64, had already earned endorsements from high-wattage politicians like Gavin Newsom and millions of dollars in funding from politically prestigious bankrollers like tech billionaire Sean Parker. The country had shifted to a “new model” to address marijuana, Stanford University law professor Robert MacCoun told the San Francisco Chronicle in May 2016.

In the Sessions era, the “new model” includes broad support from conservative lawmakers. Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents one of the most reliably conservative districts in the country, joined U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) in criticizing Sessions from the right. Gardner went as far as to threaten to hold up future judicial nominees in committee unless Sessions relented.

So far, Sessions’ move to pull the Cole memo has had only psychological impact—and not all of it negative. In the days after the memo was yanked Jan. 4, the Vermont legislature voted to legalized small amounts of marijuana for adults. While that bill does not include a legal commercial marketplace, if signed by Gov. Phil Scott, it would be the first time legalization came by the lawmaking process rather than ballot initiative.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has promised to follow through with a campaign vow to legalize recreational cannabis within 100 days; and in New Hampshire, an adult-use legalization bill has already passed the state House.

It’s much, much too late to stop marijuana legalization. If Sessions’ goal is to slow it, he must act soon. If he does, we could be in for a repeat of the 2011-2013 era. And that did not end well for the feds.

Lee & Khanna Sponsor House Version of the Marijuana Justice Act

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) today introduced the House version of the Marijuana Justice Act, the companion bill to Sen. Cory Booker’s legislation, S. 1689. The Marijuana Justice Act, which Booker introduced in the Senate last August, would end federal cannabis prohibition and help correct decades of injustice surrounding the discriminatory enforcement of marijuana criminalization laws in the United States.

‘This legislation will end this destructive war on drugs. Here on the first day, we have 12 co-signers, which is really remarkable.’

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California

Booker’s bill would get the federal government out of the prohibition game by declaring that the Controlled Substances Act would no longer apply to cannabis.

The bill would not declare marijuana legal in all 50 states. It would simply remove federal illegality and allow each state to regulate cannabis in its own way. States with criminal penalties for cannabis would keep those laws, at least until voters or legislators decided to change them. States with legal regulated cannabis systems would be allowed to continue without the threat of federal interference.

The bill would also use federal funds to encourages states to change their cannabis laws if those laws are shown to have a disproportionate effect on low-income individuals or people of color. Most studies on the issue have shown that those disproportionate effects happen in every state. The bill also includes provisions for expungement of marijuana-related convictions, and a community reinvestment fund for communities most impacted by the war on drugs and the prohibition of cannabis.

“This legislation will end this destructive war on drugs,” Rep. Lee said this afternoon. “Here on the first day, we have 12 co-signers in the House. Which is really remarkable.”

“This bill is really an essential step in correcting the injustices of the war on drugs,” she added.

RELATED STORY

Booker Debuts ‘Marijuana Justice Act’ to Legalize Cannabis

Booker Bill Finally Getting Traction

Booker’s bill has suffered from a bout of loneliness since its introduction last year. Until recently only one senator—Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden—had come aboard as a co-sponsor. In the wake of California’s adult-use system opening on Jan. 1, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ rescission of the Cole memo, a flurry of new bills and a renewed interest in legalization have taken hold on Capitol Hill.

“We’re seeing this rush of enthusiasm [for legalization], from California to New Jersey,” Booker said. “But it’s hypocritical and destructive if you don’t legalize while trying to undue the damage done by the war on drugs.”

Lee, who introduced a separate measure to prevent enforcement of federal laws in legal states last week, spoke about the “devastating consequences” of Sessions’ removal of the Cole memo guidelines.

RELATED STORY

These Senators Are All Talk, No Action on Cannabis Legalization

‘We Know Who Suffers in the War on Drugs’

“We know who’s most likely to suffer from a revival of the war on drugs,” she said, referring to disadvantaged neighborhoods and people of color. “The Trump administration has made a major miscalculation,” she said, in attempting to revive the failed drug policies of the 1980s.

Rep. Khanna, whose district includes much of California’s Silicon Valley, addressed the economic issues covered in the bill. “The estimates are that the [nationwide] legalization of marijuana would result in a $40 billion industry, with nearly 1 million jobs and a tax base of $7 billion. That would more than cover the $500 million [in federal incentives and programs] in this bill. It’s a net gain.”

“But the economic impact is so much broader than just that $40 billion industry,” Khanna said. “We’re giving people a real second chance by getting rid of that criminal past that is stifling their future.”

RELATED STORY

New Bill in Congress Would Ban Federal Cannabis Enforcement in Legal States

New Bill in Congress Would Ban Federal Cannabis Enforcement in Legal States

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has had cannabis in his crosshairs since even before he took office, but his first formal shot at legalization—the decision last week to rescind the Cole memo—looks more and more like it could backfire.

On Friday, a California congresswoman introduced a US House bill that would protect state-legal cannabis from “excessive federal enforcement.” Specifically, it would forbid federal agencies from spending money to “detain, prosecute, sentence, or initiate civil proceedings against an individual, business or property, that is involved in the cultivation, distribution, possession, dispensation, or use of cannabis” when those actions comply with state law or local regulations.

RELATED STORY

A Top Cannabis Lawyer on What Losing the Cole Memo Means

It’s essentially the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment writ large. While Rohrabacher­–Blumenauer (formerly Rohrabacher–Farr) applies only to medical cannabis, bars only Justice Department prosecutions, and needs to be periodically renewed by lawmakers, the new bill is permanent, protects medical and adult-use cannabis, and applies to all federal agencies.

Dubbed the Restraining Excessive Federal Enforcement & Regulations of Cannabis (REFER) Act of 2018, the new legislation was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and first reported by Tom Angell of Marijuana Moment, who obtained a full copy of the bill (below) and connected with one of its cosponsors:

“It is time we expand the protections of Rohrabacher-Farr to ensure that no government agency targets marijuana companies and their partners in ancillary businesses,” Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-NV) … told Marijuana Moment via an email. “Taxpayer dollars should not be used to crackdown on law-abiding taxpayers operating legally in states.”

The new bill wouldn’t change the status of cannabis under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which means the bill would have no effect in states that haven’t legalized. But states that adopt their own cannabis laws would no longer face interference—or the threat of it—from federal officials.

RELATED STORY

Here’s Where US Attorneys Stand on Cannabis Enforcement

Not that Sessions’ recent threat appears to have had much effect, at least of the kind Sessions intended. Rather than slow the spread of legalization, it may have actually hastened it.

Since Sessions undid the Cole memo, state lawmakers have introduced legalization measures in New Jersey and Kentucky. In New Hampshire, members of House gave preliminary approval to another. Perhaps most notably, Vermont’s legislature became the first to pass an adult-use legalization bill—one that Gov. Phil Scott has pledged to sign.

Meanwhile, states that recently passed cannabis laws—including California, Massachusetts, and medical-only North Dakota—appear to be rolling out their programs undaunted. In states that have had legal markets for years, such as Colorado and Washington, state and local officials are lashing out against Sessions, saying his move could do more harm than good.

RELATED STORY

Politicians Outraged: Sessions Move ‘Trampled the Will of the Voters’

It’s not yet clear whether the REFER Act has any chance of passing. While some members of Congress have been spurred to action since the Sessions announcement—another House bill, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, gained 13 sponsors in the wake of the Cole memo’s undoing—other members have yet to sign on to legislation even after issuing strong statements of support.

Here’s Where US Attorneys Stand on Cannabis Enforcement

Don’t expect Jeff Sessions’ undoing of the Cole memo to unleash a nationwide crackdown. By rescinding Justice Department guidelines that encouraged federal prosecutors to take a hands-off approach in legal states, the attorney general isn’t so much dropping bombs as he is encouraging his lieutenants to fire at will. It will be up to individual US attorneys to pull the trigger.

RELATED STORY

FAQ: What We Know About Jeff Sessions’ DOJ Action Against Legal Cannabis

In other words, a crackdown on state-legal cannabis, if it comes, will likely happen unevenly. District by district, US attorneys will decide for themselves how to enforce federal cannabis law—or whether to enforce it at all. This is exactly what we saw in California during the last major federal crackdown, in 2011 and 2012. US attorneys in some parts of the state tried to close every dispensary in their districts, while others allowed shops to operate unimpeded.

US attorneys are playing their cards very close to their chests.

In this new normal, it’s crucial to understand not just Sessions’ views, but also where each US attorney stands on cannabis. To that end, we’re tracking how US attorneys in legal states have responded to the removal of the Cole memo—and how likely they are to take action.

You’ll notice a common theme as you read through this piece: US attorneys are playing their cards very close to their chests. Most have issued murky statements that can be interpreted in a number of ways. We’ve done our best to parse the available information and add to those statements to get a better sense of the risk of prosecution in that district.

RELATED STORY

A Top Cannabis Lawyer on What Losing the Cole Memo Means

Initially we’ll be looking at states that have legalized adult-use cannabis. This page will be updated to include more information about US attorneys in medical-only states.

Each state has at least one federal district. A US attorney acts as the chief federal prosecutor for his or her district. (Courtesy of the US Department of Justice)

Alaska

US Attorney Brian D. Schroder, a Trump appointee whom the Senate confirmed in November, isn’t giving us much to go on. He said in a statement shortly after Sessions’ announcement that his office would continue using “long-established principles” in deciding which cases to charge. He added that violent crime, including that which stems from drug crimes, has been a top priority. His office has declined to comment further.

Schroder’s statement—like his record on cannabis—is awfully thin. Aside from any violent incidents in the state system, which would almost certainly draw his attention, it’s not yet clear what action, if any, his office might take.

Prosecution Risk: UNKNOWN

RELATED STORY

Alaska Authorities Vow to Fight Feds on Legal Cannabis

California

Central District (Los Angeles)

Interim US Attorney Nicola T. Hanna took his post last week, when Sessions appointed him and 16 others as interim US attorneys. So far both Hanna and his predecessor, Sandra Brown, have been mum on enforcement, which could be an ominous sign if the office weren’t in the midst of a transition. As it is, it doesn’t tell us much.

It’s worth noting that Hanna was a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles and San Diego during the 1990s, when the war on drugs was in full swing. He then left the office for private practice, taking a position at the international firm Gibson Dunn. He hasn’t said much on cannabis, but in the 2016 presidential election, records show he gave $2,700 to the campaign of Chris Christie—a notorious anti-cannabis crusader.

Complicating it all, Hanna’s gig is only temporary. As an interim US attorney, he can serve for 120 days until President Trump must appoint someone and seek Senate confirmation.

Prosecution Risk: LOW/MEDIUM

RELATED STORY

LA Cannabis Industry: Jeff Sessions ‘More Bark Than Bite’

Eastern District (Sacramento)

US Attorney Scott W. McGregor, a Trump appointee currently awaiting Senate confirmation, already held the position under President George W. Bush. While in office, he targeted large-scale cannabis operations and developed a reputation for seeking harsh sentences. As the Sacramento Bee reports, at the time he asked local authorities to refer cannabis cases to federal prosecutors. He also went after a pair of dispensary operators who were convicted in 2008 and each sentenced to 20 or more years in prison. (President Barack Obama granted one of the two men clemency in 2017. The other is still behind bars.)

Following Sessions’ memo, McGregor spokesperson Lauren Horwood said the office would evaluate possible enforcement actions “in accordance with our district’s federal law enforcement priorities and resources.” That’s pretty standard boilerplate and doesn’t tell us much, but McGregor’s enforcement history suggests he wouldn’t be shy about going after cannabis businesses if he feels they’re too far out of line.

“He used to be a hardcore, anti-cannabis drug warrior,” Sebastopol lawyer Omar Figueroa told the Sacramento Bee. “I hope he has evolved.”

Prosecution Risk: MEDIUM

RELATED STORY

California Authorities Seize 27,000 Cannabis Plants in 4-Day Calaveras Raid

Northern District (San Francisco)

Acting US Attorney Alex G. Tse took over for former US Attorney Brian Stretch, who announced through a spokesperson on Jan. 4 that he would be leaving the post. It was the same day Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, though Stretch said the announcement was not the reason for his departure.

Despite their San Francisco office location, Northern District prosecutors have a reputation for interfering with California’s legal-cannabis system even when local officials push back. The office famously undertook—and famously lost—a multiyear case against Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, perhaps the state’s best-known dispensary.

Tse, for his part, spent most of the 2011-12 federal crackdown in California working in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. The experience likely gave him an understanding of the close working relationship between federal and local authorities—something that might give him pause before bringing cases against locally approved, state-licensed businesses.

Prosecution Risk: LOW

RELATED STORY

Federal Court Bars Justice Department From Prosecuting Medical Cannabis

Southern District (San Diego)

Interim US Attorney Adam L. Braverman was appointed by Jeff Sessions in November, though he’s been a federal prosecutor in the Southern District since 2008. His focus was large, international drug-trafficking cartels, and after being sworn in as US attorney last year, he said he wanted to prioritize “those crimes committed by transnational criminal organizations.”

On its face, that seems just fine. State-legal cannabis has shrunk the illegal market in the United States, and Braverman may rightly see prosecuting licensed businesses as a surefire way to reinvigorate cartels. But sometimes when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

More worrisome is Braverman’s statement following the Sessions memo: “The Department of Justice is committed to reducing violent crime and enforcing the laws as enacted by Congress. The cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana has long been and remains a violation of federal law,” he said. “We will continue to utilize long-established prosecutorial priorities to carry out our mission to combat violent crime, disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations, and stem the rising tide of the drug crisis.”

If Braverman does his homework, he’ll see that legalization tends to accomplish those priorities. But if he views legal cannabis as part of the problem, watch out.

Prosecution Risk: MEDIUM

RELATED STORY

Colorado Delegation Moves Quickly to Stop Sessions’ War on Cannabis

 Colorado

(Courtesy of DOJ)

US Attorney Robert C. Troyer became an acting US attorney in 2016 and was appointed interim US attorney by Jeff Sessions in November. Asked by the Denver Post about the Sessions memo, Troyer’s office provided this response:

Here is the question we ask every time we consider allocating our finite resources to prosecute any of the vast number of federal crimes we can prosecute, from violent crime to immigration crime to opioid crime: Will this prosecution make Colorado safer? … Under the attorney general’s new memo, we have more freedom and flexibility to make decisions that make Colorado safer by prosecuting individuals and organizations for marijuana crimes that significantly threaten our community safety.

US attorneys often point to their own district’s unique needs when explaining their enforcement priorities, so this doesn’t tell us much—although it does suggest Troyer could take action in response to local officials who believe legal cannabis is a threat to public safety, as has happened in past crackdowns.

For now, Troyer said he would “continue to take” the approach his office has been using—suggesting not much will change in the short term. Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman told the Post that she had asked Troyer to “please notify me … if there is going to be any change in those priorities or in those actions so that we have a heads-up. And I have his agreement that he will do that.”​ In the meantime, she said, “I would encourage people not to freak out.”

Prosecution Risk: LOW/MEDIUM

RELATED STORY

Colorado Officials Say: Stop Freaking, We Ain’t Retreating

Maine

(Courtesy of DOJ)

US Attorney Halsey B. Frank, a Trump nominee, was confirmed by the Senate in October. To his credit, he’s issued a lengthy statement on the Sessions move. Unfortunately, like most other US attorney statements so far, it doesn’t offer much in the way of clarity. “My job is to enforce federal law, not countermand it,” Frank said. “I do not have the authority to categorically declare that my office will not prosecute a class of crime or persons.”

Unlike some other US attorneys, Frank has spoken out publicly against legalized cannabis in the past. In a 2013 column in The Forecaster newspaper (published after the Cole memo), he wrote that when “there is a conflict between state and federal law, federal law prevails.” Maine’s state law, which at the time allowed medical use of cannabis, “is not a defense to federal prosecution for manufacturing or distributing marijuana,” he wrote.

Lest you think he was just opining on legal procedure, he also included this veiled jab at legalization: “Society can only tolerate a certain number of intoxicated people on its streets and highways, at school, at work and at play.” (You can read his full column here.)

One bright spot, especially for individuals: Frank’s recent statement notes that his office “has prioritized the prosecution of cases involving the trafficking of opiates, cocaine, crack and similar hard drugs.” Prosecuting individuals for possession, he said, “has not been a priority.”

Prosecution Risk: MEDIUM

RELATED STORY

Maine Lawmakers Face Big Cannabis Decisions

Massachusetts

US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling, a Trump nominee, was confirmed by the Senate in December. In response to the Sessions memo, he issued a statement saying he could not “provide assurances that certain categories of participants in the state-level marijuana trade will be immune from federal prosecution.”

This is a straightforward rule of law issue.  Congress has unambiguously made it a federal crime to cultivate, distribute and/or possess marijuana.  As a law enforcement officer in the Executive Branch, it is my sworn responsibility to enforce that law, guided by the Principles of Federal Prosecution.  To do that, however, I must proceed on a case-by-case basis, assessing each matter according to those principles and deciding whether to use limited federal resources to pursue it.

This has the noncommittal air of some other US attorneys’ statements, but the tone is comparatively harsh. While it doesn’t signal a categorical crackdown on cannabis businesses, it certainly suggests the office could bring targeted actions against certain state-legal actors.

More worrisome is the relative lack of local pushback to Sessions rescinding the Cole memo. While officials in many other legal states have decried the move, Massachusetts elected officials, many of whom opposed the 2016 ballot question that legalized cannabis, have been relatively quiet.

Prosecution Risk: MEDIUM/HIGH

RELATED STORY

Massachusetts Regulators: ‘Nothing Has Changed’ After Shift in Fed Policy

Nevada

Interim US Attorney Dayle Elieson was one of 17 interim US attorneys appointed by Sessions last week. Before the appointment, she was an assistant US attorney in Texas, where she focused on fraud, money laundering, and terrorism. As a new arrival to Nevada, she’s a relatively unknown quantity, and Nevada officials are eagerly awaiting further guidance from the office.

“I know that the US attorney in Colorado has already said that he is not going to enforce federal laws against the legalized marijuana industry in that state,” Gov. Brian Sandoval told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I would like to see something similar here in Nevada, but that’s a discussion that needs to be had.” (It’s worth noting that Sandoval may be overstating assurances by Colorado US Attorney Robert C. Troyer; see the Massachusetts section of this story, above.)

Nevada’s legal cannabis program has strong support from state and local officials, which could help dissuade Elieson from taking a hardline stance legal against legal cannabis while still new to the office. Federal prosecutors tend to work closely with local law enforcement and other partners, and targeting cannabis could risk hurting those relationships.

As an interim US attorney, Elieson’s post is only temporary. She’ll be able to serve for 120 days before Trump must nominate someone for the position and seek Senate confirmation.

Prosecution Risk: UNKNOWN

RELATED STORY

Talk of Federal Cannabis Crackdown in Nevada Draws Partisan Reactions

Oregon

(Courtesy of DOJ)

US Attorney Billy J. Williams, who became an acting US attorney in 2015 and was nominated by Trump in November to remain in the post, has already expressed concerns with the state’s cannabis regulatory system. In an interview with the Associated Press last year, he complained about what he said was insufficient enforcement by the state to prevent cannabis from being illegally exported to states where it’s not legal. Stopping diversion to other states was a key piece of the now-rescinded Cole memo.

Following Sessions’ move last week, Williams put out the following statement:

As noted by Attorney General Sessions, today’s memo on marijuana enforcement directs all U.S. Attorneys to use the reasoned exercise of discretion when pursuing prosecutions related to marijuana crimes. We will continue working with our federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partners to pursue shared public safety objectives, with an emphasis on stemming the overproduction of marijuana and the diversion of marijuana out of state, dismantling criminal organizations and thwarting violent crime in our communities.

It sounds like Williams might be OK with Oregon’s cannabis program when it works, but failures—including things like diversion, violence, or illegal sales to minors—could prompt him to take action. So he’s presumably not too pleased with reports like one issued this week by Oregon cannabis regulators that found a number of stores around the state that reportedly sold cannabis to minors.

Prosecution Risk: LOW/MEDIUM

RELATED STORY

Oregon Politicians Push Back Against Sessions Memo

Washington, DC

US Attorney Jessie K. Liu, a Trump nominee whom the Senate confirmed in September, has said through a spokesperson that the office is “committed to reducing violent crime and dismantling criminal gangs and large-scale drug distribution networks that pose a threat to public safety.”

Washington, DC, is unusual in that it allows individuals to grow, possess, consume, and even give away cannabis but, due to pressure from federal lawmakers, forbids purchases or sales. The laws have led to the emergence of a thriving gray market in which consumers make “donations” or purchase other items and are “gifted” cannabis as part of the transaction. Liu may take a closer look at these businesses—they are, after all, operating in Jeff Sessions’ backyard—but it seems unlikely at this point that she’ll bring cases against individuals who follow the law.

Prosecution Risk: LOW/MEDIUM

RELATED STORY

Jeff Sessions Asks Congress to End Medical Cannabis Protections

Washington State

Eastern District (Spokane)

Interim US Attorney Joseph Harrington was another of the 17 interim US attorneys appointed by Sessions last week. He’s a longtime federal prosecutor, with nearly three decades of experience handling the office’s criminal division, health care cases, and terrorism matters.

Harrington has said hardly anything about how Sessions’ move would affect his office’s cannabis enforcement. Immediately following the undoing of the Cole memo, he directed questions directly to the main Justice Department press office in Washington, DC. The Eastern District, nevertheless, has come to be seen as an aggressive enforcer by many in the state’s legal cannabis industry. The office sought criminal charges, for example, against a family of medical cannabis patients who became known as the Kettle Falls Five.

Harrington filed a motion in October to put that case on pause, noting that a federal spending provision—which had been adopted three years earlier and halted a blockbuster California case in May 2016—prevented the case from going forward. But that provision, the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment, is set to expire later this month, and it only blocks prosecutions against medical operations. Currently nothing stands in the way of Harrington bringing cases against the state’s many adult-use businesses.

Prosecution Risk: MEDIUM

RELATED STORY

In Surprise Move, Justice Dept. Stands Down on ‘Kettle Falls Five’ Case

Western District (Seattle)

US Attorney Annette L. Hayes, who became acting US attorney in 2014 after her predecessor resigned, remained in the position after President Barack Obama declined to make an appointment. On the day Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, she issued this statement:

Today the Attorney General reiterated his confidence in the basic principles that guide the discretion of all U.S. Attorneys around the country, and directed that those principles shepherd enforcement of federal law regarding marijuana.  He also emphasized his belief that U.S. Attorneys are in the best position to address public safety in their districts, and address the crime control problems that are pressing in their communities.  Those principles have always been at the core of what the United States Attorney’s Office for Western Washington has done – across all threats to public safety, including those relating to marijuana.  As a result, we have investigated and prosecuted over many years cases involving organized crime, violent and gun threats, and financial crimes related to marijuana.  We will continue to do so to ensure – consistent with the most recent guidance from the Department – that our enforcement efforts with our federal, state, local and tribal partners focus on those who pose the greatest safety risk to the people and communities we serve.

This may be the most supportive statement of state-legal cannabis to come out of a US attorney’s office in the wake of Sessions’ announcement. Read between the lines. Hayes’ almost cheeky use of “reiterated” suggests little or nothing has changed in her eyes. Rather than read Sessions’ move as a sign the attorney general wants to see more cannabis cases—which, given Sessions’ views on cannabis, it almost certainly was—Hayes’ comments interpret the memo as an endorsement of local discretion. “Thanks for trusting us to do a good job,” the statement seems to say. It’s likely that wasn’t by accident.

Prosecution Risk: LOW

RELATED STORY

Washington State Vows to Defend Cannabis From Federal Crackdown

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

California Bill Would Ease Erasure of Cannabis Convictions

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A Democratic lawmaker wants to make it easier for Californians with marijuana convictions to reduce or erase their records as the state moves into the next phase of legalized cannabis.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, introduced legislation on Tuesday that would require county courts to automatically expunge eligible records. It’s one of several efforts to build on the choice California voters’ made to legalize marijuana despite fresh threats from the federal government.

The Drug Policy Alliance estimates more than 100,000 people are eligible to have their records changed.

Voters approved the ability to wipe criminal marijuana conviction records in 2016 as part of Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana and retroactively erased and reduced some cannabis-related criminal penalties from felonies to misdemeanors.

Existing law requires people with convictions to initiate the process themselves. But many people don’t, either because they’re unaware it’s an option or because it can be complicated and costly. As of September 2017, around 5,000 people had applied for a change to their records, according to state data. That’s a fraction of the people that experts estimate are eligible.

The bill would “give folks who deserve it under the law the fresh start they’re entitled to,” Bonta said, adding that cannabis convictions have disproportionality affected young minorities.

RELATED STORY

This One Chart Captures Everything Wrong With NYC Cannabis Arrests

Recreational marijuana became legal in California last year, and on Jan. 1 it became legal for licensed dispensaries to sell it to non-medical patients.

Another proposal that stalled last year would restrict state and local law enforcement from cooperating with federal efforts to crack down on anyone growing or selling cannabis legally under state law.

Democratic Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer of Los Angeles introduced the bill last year amid tough talk about marijuana from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’, but it did not advance as the state Legislature waited to see what the U.S. government would do. He hopes to see it move forward now that Sessions has made more concrete threats.

RELATED STORY

FAQ: What We Know About Jeff Sessions’ DOJ Action Against Legal Cannabis

The U.S. Justice Department announced last week it’s halting an Obama-era policy to take a hands-off approach toward states that have legalized marijuana, still illegal under federal law. That could lead to increased prosecutions of marijuana sellers and growers, although it’s unclear how aggressive federal attorneys will be. More than half of states have legalized or decriminalized the drug and lawmakers in those states pledged forcefully to defend their policies.

“California overwhelmingly sent a message to the federal government stating that their cannabis-centric ‘war on drugs’ should not be waged here,” Jones-Sawyer said in a statement. “State resources that are paid by tax dollars should not be used to disrupt lawful businesses.

Laura Thomas, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said she talks to many people who are unaware they can eliminate their past convictions under the new law. She estimates more than 100,000 people are eligible to have their records changed.

Bonta provided no cost estimate for what his proposal. It would require county courts to identify eligible convictions, change the records and then notify people of the changes.

CHP Seizure of Legal Cannabis Outrages California Farmers

On Friday night Dec. 22, three days before Christmas and ten days before California ushered in legal retail sales of marijuana for adult use, California Highway Patrol officers pulled over the truck of a locally-licensed marijuana distributor near North State Street and Pomo Lane, just north of the Mendocino County seat of Ukiah.

The truck for Old Kai Distribution was carrying 1,875 pounds of plant material from three local farms. It was to be sorted and inventoried at the company’s Ukiah factory, given traceable bar codes, sent out for sample testing at cannabis laboratories and, eventually, shipped to licensed concentrate manufacturers.

‘The Highway Patrol charged our truck drivers with transportation and possession of cannabis, which is exactly what our license is for.’

Lucas Seymour, founder, Old Kai Distribution

Old Kai co-founder Lucas Seymour said the CHP officers pulled over his drivers after apparently noticing some malfunctioning running lights on the frame of the truck. Ultimately, the CHP summoned officers from a regional major crimes task force, seized the cannabis, impounded the truck and cited the Old Kai driver and a passenger with misdemeanor counts of possession of marijuana for sale and unlawful transportation.

“They were charged with transportation and possession, which is exactly what our license is for,” Seymour said.

Old Kai’s attorney tried to intervene, and the company provided on-site documentation of having been approved for an adult use and medical marijuana distribution license by Mendocino County on Dec. 19, Lucas said. It also provided documents to show the company was also operating legally as a medical marijuana collective.

Seymour told Leafly that one of the CHP officers scoffed at the documentation, saying, “How do I know you didn’t just print this off the internet?”

RELATED STORY

California Goes Legal: Updated List of Open Adult-Use Stores

Licensed & Documented, but ‘Still Illegal’

Officer Jake Slates, a spokesman for the CHP’s Ukiah office, later told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat newspaper that commercial transportation of cannabis wasn’t permitted until retail sales begin for adult use on Jan. 1, 2018. “Let’s say they went through and got all the documentation and it’s 100 percent legal – it’s still illegal because it’s before Jan. 1, 2018,” Slates told the newspaper.

But Old Kai and its attorney, Joe Rogoway, say the Highway Patrol’s interpretation was wrong. They say the company’s local distribution permit was legally valid for transport within the county under Mendocino County ordinances and that Old Kai was also operating lawfully under medical marijuana regulations signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, 2015.

A spokesman for the state Bureau of Cannabis Control declined to comment on the matter.

Now Old Kai’s founders and local cannabis farmers, while lacking proof, say they believe law enforcement officials have destroyed the seized cannabis – which, if true, would be a devastating financial loss for the company and local farmers whose product was being shipped.

Farmers Demand Action from Supervisors

Last Tuesday, concerned marijuana farmers crowded into the meeting of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, demanding information as well as action by supervisors to protest the CHP seizure.

Rogoway decried “a grave injustice,” saying the incident will frighten regional cannabis farmers and businesses that trusted the regulated marijuana economy would offer protection “to come out of the shadows” without putting livelihoods and liberties at risk.

“What is at issue here,” Rogoway said, “is why bother? Why should I participate in the system and put myself in jeopardy? If this is what happens to Old Kai, what will happen to me?”

RELATED STORY

Traveling to California for Legal Cannabis? Here’s What to Know

Old Kai co-founder Matthew Mandelker told supervisors that the traffic stop stoked fears the Mendocino marijuana community still can’t feel safe from raids and seizure – even as the robust California cannabis economy seeks to roll back generations of prohibition.

“For too long, this industry has treated as if it is outside the social, civil and legal economic fabric of this community,” Mandelker protested. He added: “It is our understanding that the product has been destroyed, which is an outrage, just unfathomable in 2018 that were dealing with this.”

Where’s the Cannabis? CHP: No Comment

Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Coady Corrigan in Ukiah declined to respond to inquiries from Leafly on what happened to the seized cannabis. “We’ve been directed to refer all inquiries to the Mendocino County District Attorney’s office,” he said.

‘What is the issue? We don’t even have it officially under review.’

Mike Geniella, spokesman for Mendocino DA David Eyster

But Mike Geniella, a spokesman for District Attorney David Eyster said the DA still hadn’t received the case file from the CHP to determine whether it would proceed with prosecution.

“We don’t have anything to review,” he said. “What is this about? What is the issue? We don’t even have it officially under review.”

Geniella said Monday he still had no clue on the mystery over the whereabouts, or status, of the seized cannabis. He referred questions to the sheriff’s department, which has declined comment to media outlets, including Leafly.

Before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, anguished cannabis farmer Joshua Artman of the Mendocino community of Covelo touched his right hand to his heart and vented.

“Most of that product (seized) was mine,” said Artman, a former federal employee with the U.S. Geological Survey. He had come to the county a decade ago to cultivate cannabis. His farm, Blue Nose Botanicals, was among the first to sign up for the county’s local 9.31 permitting program, placing its trust in the sheriff’s sergeant who came out to inspect and tag his plants – before a 2011 federal raid on another farm killed the program.

Artman and the county embraced local regulation anew after the California Legislature passed a framework for governing the medical marijuana economy and, this year, consolidated those rules with adult use regulations under Proposition 64. Now he was feeling emotionally, and possibly financially, crushed after the Old Kai seizure.

“I had signed up for everything,” Artman told supervisors, noting that he had just walked past the county tax collector’s office before entering the board room. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been in there paying them money” in local taxes and licensing fees. “I don’t know what to tell my family. We believed in you. We believed these regulations would be meaningful. We believed that signing up would amount to something and that there would be smart enforcement.”

RELATED STORY

California’s Legal Cannabis Sales Begin: Leafly’s Full Coverage

‘Express Your Dismay’

A procession of speakers in the open comment period argued that the county should form a task force to address break downs in communications and understanding with law enforcement.

“This should not be met with silence from the board,” thundered Covelo resident Charles Sargenti. “I urge the board to express in as strong as manner possible your dismay and disappointment in regards to this incident. There should be no uncertainly on where you stand.”

Supervisors in the cannabis-friendly county were trying to catch up with the details of the incident. Beyond public comment, there was nothing on the agenda related the matter. But, without offering specifics, board chairman Dan Hamburg promised supervisors would explore actions to address the situation.

“Obviously, this Old Kai situation has brought up a lot of concern, a lot of anger,” Hamburg said. “The board realizes this is a serious situation that needs to be addressed. I want to assure people of that.”

Has the Cannabis Already Been Destroyed?

Seymour of Old Kai said he fears the seized cannabis was destroyed under state laws that allow destruction of confiscated cannabis in excess of 10 pounds without a court order. The state health and safety statute, amended in June, 2017, specifies that authorities can destroy any amount of medical cannabis above limits set by local ordinances. But Seymour argues that Mendocino County specifies no quantity limits for locally-permitted distribution.

Even though he conceded he has no direct evidence the seized product is gone, Seymour said his is convinced that “all signs point to the cannabis being destroyed.

“At this point, if it wasn’t destroyed we would have heard something through the grapevine,” he said. “And we have not heard much from anybody.”

10 California Cannabis Products Available in 2018

If you’re a newcomer trying to navigate California’s freshly opened cannabis market, you’re not alone. Even if you were a medical patient prior to the switch, there are a plethora of new rules shaping the products now available, and even brands you recognize may have made some changes as adult-use regulations have gone into effect.

RELATED STORY

California’s New Edibles Limits Will Ban Popular Products

While this market is likely to continue to change rapidly throughout 2018 and beyond, the following are 10 products you can already purchase if you’re shopping at California recreational cannabis stores today. We’ve listed each with its approximate price and at least one place you can find it—to see whether it’s available at your favorite store, check that store’s menu on Leafly.

Have other faves you’re loving on California’s new market that we haven’t mentioned here? Share them in the comments below!

RELATED STORY

California Goes Legal: Updated List of Open Adult-Use Stores

10 California <strong><a href=Marijuana Products Available in 2018 | Leafly" width="840" height="840" />(Courtesy of Sprig)

Already beloved from California’s medical market days, these delectable, citrusy, cannabis-infused drinks come in lively soda cans and include 45mg THC (4.5 doses) per can.

Approximate price: $9

One place to find it: Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley

Formerly known as hmbldt, dosist is focused on exactly what the new name suggests: dependable cannabis oil dosing (targeting 2.25mg per hit). These disposable, pre-loaded pens probably the most advanced and noob friendly vape pen out there, and the Bliss formulation, at 9:1 THC:CBD, is a fan favorite.

Approximate price: $100 per half-gram

One place to find it: Caliva in San Jose

RELATED STORY

Best in State: The Top Cannabis Locations, Products, and Activities in California in 2017

10 California <strong><a href=Marijuana Products Available in 2018 | Leafly" width="840" height="840" />(Courtesy of Marley Natural)

You know Ghost OG as the strain that lab-tests highest for THC, and you can find this powerhouse strain in Marley Natural’s curated California collection of indoor-grown Studio strains.

Approximate price: $55 per eighth

One place to find it: 420 Central in Santa Ana

Foria Pleasure is our top pick for cannabis-infused lube (or, more accurately, cannabis-infused “sensual oil”), and the little amber bottles pack in plenty of THC. Also available from Foria are Foria Relief vaginal suppositories, designed to mollify menstrual cramps.

Approximate price: $38

One place to find it: MedMen in West Hollywood

RELATED STORY

These Are the Hottest New Dispensaries That Opened in 2017

10 California <strong><a href=Marijuana Products Available in 2018 | Leafly" width="840" height="840" />(Courtesy of Master Growers)

Master Growers’ price points are incredibly reasonable—often you’ll end up with two grams of oil for the normal rate that one goes for elsewhere.

Approximate price: $50 per 2g

One place to find it: Mankind Cooperative in San Diego

Korova reformulated their previously-more-potent cookies just in the nick of time to get them into the new retail market. They’re available in packages of 100mg total, made more easily dosable with ten 10mg mini-cookies per package.

Approximate price: $10

One place to find them: Airfield Supply Co. in San Jose

RELATED STORY

Last Call: California’s High-Potency Edible Makers Crank Out Final Batches

10 California Marijuana Products Available in 2018 | Leafly(Courtesy of Cannabis Quencher)

Clocking in from 10mg up to the new maximum for THC content for California edibles, 100mg (the old 200mg formulations are now banned), you can buy Cannabis Quencher drinks in various strengths, formulations, and flavors including mango, strawberry lemonade, and watermelon lime.

Approximate price: $15 for 100mg

One place to find it: Palm Springs Safe Access (PSSA) in Palm Springs

Tangie is among the most delectable strains on the market, so it makes sense that Utopia’s live resin version would be just as mouthwatering in dab form.

Approximate price: $45 per half-gram

One place to find it: Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley

RELATED STORY

Tired of Infused Chocolates? Try These Delicious Drinkable Edibles Instead

10 California Marijuana Products Available in 2018 | Leafly(Courtesy of Select Oil)

Available in indica, sativa, or hybrid varieties, Select’s scientifically formulated Elite cartridges contain pure, high-potency distillate infused with strain-specific terpenes.

Approximate price: $36 per half-gram

One place to find it: MedMen in West Hollywood

10 California Marijuana Products Available in 2018 | Leafly(Courtesy of Sensi Chew)

Sensi Chew’s 100mg medicated caramels are delicious and designed to get the job done. The insomnia variety is particularly effective: It’s formulated with melatonin to help you drift off in record time.

Approximate price: $12

One place to find them: Airfield Supply Co. in San Jose

In the Fight Over LA Weekly, Cannabis Companies Are Caught in the Middle

In 2008, a year after graduating from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, David Welch watched a close friend get sent to prison for three years for selling marijuana to an undercover cop. The experience set his legal destiny.

“Watching my friend handcuffed and led away to lockup gave me my inspiration to change California’s cannabis criminal laws through litigation, political activism and policy,” he would later recall.

The new owners need cannabis ads to keep the paper afloat. But their initial missteps put that plan in jeopardy.

Welch signed on as a member of NORML, the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws. He built a law practice focused less on criminal justice than on legal cannabis capitalism, representing businesses and investors seeking legitimacy in state-regulated marijuana economies.

Along the way, he boldly injected himself into fights against local governments and even between competing marijuana business interests. Welch represented scores of dispensaries that sued the City of Los Angeles when city officials denied them operating permits. When unlicensed dispensaries undermined the customer base of city-permitted operators in neighboring Santa Ana, Welch went to court for the permitted companies, seeking to shutter their unlicensed competitors.

Now, after establishing himself as a high-profile leader in the California cannabis bar, Welch finds himself embroiled in an unlikely–and particularly bitter–scrum over the future of Los Angeles’ venerable alternative newspaper, the LA Weekly. And the cannabis industry is playing a surprisingly central role in the battle.

RELATED STORY

California Goes Legal: Updated List of Open Adult-Use Stores

Banking on Cannabis Ads

Welch is the general counsel and an investor in Semanal Media, the upstart company that purchased the LA Weekly late last year from the Voice Media Group.

A cultural institution since the 1970s, the paper built a loyal readership base that prized its hard-edged reporting, its progressive voice and it close community connections to the Los Angeles scene, from music to cinema, haute cuisine to taco trucks.

Welch: LA Weekly ‘was going broke.’ (Photo: ggtriallaw.com)

While the paper has slimmed considerably from its economic heyday in the 1990s, cannabis was until recently considered the paper’s ace card, a bulwark against the advertising losses that have sunk countless media outlets over the past decade. The pages of LA Weekly brim with ads for medical marijuana dispensaries, delivery services, cannabis physicians and consumption accessories.

The Weekly, and particularly its new owners, were banking on the already huge Los Angeles cannabis sector surging with retail sales of adult-use marijuana that began on Jan. 1.

“The sale wasn’t about a political agenda, it was about money…pot money to be exact,” wrote Lina Lecaro, a freelance contributor who has written about nightlife, music and art for the LA Weekly for over 25 years and intends to continue writing for the paper. In a Dec. 11 article on the sale for the OC Weekly in neighboring Orange County, she wrote: “When recreational cannabis becomes legal there is tons to be made in advertising for the LA Weekly.”

That was clearly the thinking of the new owners, including Welch who–in lieu of a direct interview–agreed to respond to Leafly’s email questions forwarded to him through a public relations representative.

Welch described the Weekly as being in danger of being unable to meet payroll “without a significant cash infusion” from new investors–in addition to staff reductions.

“The publication was going broke,” he said.

Staff reductions aren’t uncommon in the media world. But the reductions at the Weekly weren’t cutbacks so much as the complete elimination of the editorial staff. And the blowback caught Welch and his fellow investors by surprise.

RELATED STORY

LA Customers Line Up for West Hollywood Cannabis Opening

Hello, You’re Fired

On Nov. 29, a few days after Thanksgiving, the LA Weekly’s new ownership group gutted the paper’s editorial staff, firing nine of the newspaper’s 13 editorial staff members. Editor-in-chief Mara Shalhoup (who was among those let go) compared it to a notoriously bloody episode of Game of Thrones.

At the end of the day, the only recognizable name left standing was staff writer Hillel Aron, who was promoted to acting editor-in-chief.

Despite the new ownership group’s embrace of cannabis economics, the layoffs did not spare veteran journalist Dennis Romero, one of California’s most respected cannabis culture and industry reporters. (Romero, who is now a freelance contributor to Leafly, declined to comment for this article.)

The mass firing sent shockwaves through the city, and generated outrage among media professionals nationwide. The laid off staffers didn’t even know exactly who had fired them, because at that point the identity of the investors who made up the Semanal Group had not been disclosed.

For 10 years, Jeff Weiss contributed stories to LA Weekly, including a regular underground music and culture column, Bizarre Ride. After the layoffs of full-time staffers, including his editor, he resigned in protest.

April Wolfe, the paper’s suddenly exiled film critic, joined Weiss in mounting a Twitter campaign calling for boycott of the Weekly, its website and advertisers. Blasting the new owners, she railed in a tweet: “They have the nerve to say that their publication will ‘speak out against injustice’ after they fired all of us and broke our union while reprinting our stories.”

The battle for LA Weekly was on.

Meet the New Boss

Two days after the mass firing, Semanal Media revealed its principal members.

Protesters picketed the alt-weekly’s offices, carrying #Boycott LAWeekly signs and hauling a coffin filled with paper copies of the newspaper.

Leader of the group was Brian Calle, former opinion editor of the Orange County Register, a paper renowned for its mix of bedrock conservatism and devout libertarianism. His fellow investors included Welch; Orange County real estate developers Mike Mugel and Paul Makarechian; Los Angeles biotech entrepreneur Kevin Xu; and two Orange County executives, attorney and technology CEO Steve Mehr and businessman Andy Bequer. Additionally, Calle said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Berkeley law school also planned to invest.

“There is a lot of talk about who owns L.A. Weekly,” Calle wrote. “We’ve seen all the speculation. Is it a Russian oligarch? Is it some Trumpista? Is it Lord Voldemort?

“Rumors are rampant and the assumption is that someone bought the Weekly for some nefarious reason. But that’s not the case.

“Our new ownership team is a patchwork of people who care about Los Angeles, care about the community and want to once again see an incredibly relevant, thriving L.A. Weekly with edge and grit that becomes the cultural center of the city.

RELATED STORY

Traveling to California for Legal Cannabis? Here’s What to Know

Protests Grow Into a Boycott

The uproar over the mass firing quickly turned into a public relations crisis for the new ownership team.

The identity of the new ownership group—in particular, its conservative Orange County Republican slant—only added fuel to the fire.

On Dec. 8, protesters picketed the alt-weekly’s offices in Culver City carrying #Boycott LAWeekly signs and hauling a coffin filled with paper copies of the newspaper.

The demonstrators seized upon a tweet from the new owners that asked “passionate Angelinos” (misspelling Angelenos) to “share stories about their life and culture in L.A.”—a signal, the protestors said, that the Weekly’s new owners intended to stock the paper with free content. The tweet has since been deleted, and the new owners said in a statement that they will continue paying current rates to freelancers, while working to build contributor ranks.

Calle: Conservative OC editor now leads LA Weekly. (@briancalle/Twitter)

On Dec. 9, Calle and Welch penned a letter of apology on the Weekly’s Facebook page.

“Our missteps have allowed rumor, conjecture, and misinformation to eclipse fact,” they wrote. “False narratives have snowballed in part because we have not adequately provided our vision and plan for the Weekly’s future to the public.”

They went on to assail “media outlets perpetuating the false narrative that we purchased the Weekly to turn it into a right-wing propaganda machine,” writing: “Nothing could be further from the truth.” They also said, “The new ownership is made up of people from many different backgrounds: progressive, conservative, African American, Asian, Persian, Latino, Caucasian, gay, straight, and immigrant. We believe our diversity gives us strength.”

Then, three days later, they announced the unpaid suspension of LA Weekly’s interim editor Hillel Aron – the only staff member who wasn’t laid off on Nov. 29 – after Spin reported on Aron’s past tweets mocking gay men, feminists and women. Aron apologized for what he said were poor attempts at humor. The new owners said the Twitter posts were out-of-touch “with LA Weekly’s values.”

RELATED STORY

The Roll-Up #15: California Goes Legal and the Cole Memo Dies

Same Outlook, or a Whole New Angle?

Weiss and other critics of the sale have charged that Calle’s investment group is poised to turn the Weekly into a GOP and Trumpista house organ. The owners claim no such intent.

Harold Meyerson, LA Weekly editor from 1989 to 2001, wrote that the new owners are out-of-touch with the values of both the paper and Los Angeles. He pointed to Calle, “the editorial page editor of the right-wing Orange County Register” and investors who are “chiefly Orange County Republicans, some of them major donors to the party’s campaigns.”

In a Dec. 24 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Meyerson wrote: “At the Register, Calle’s editorials had promoted the kind of cultural and economic libertarianism that some teenage Ayn Rand acolytes carry into adulthood. Clearly, his hope has been that his cultural libertarianism — in particular, his laissez-faire stance toward marijuana — would enable him to find some common ground with the Weekly’s always disproportionately young readers.”

RELATED STORY

Palm Springs Is California’s Smoking-Hot Cannabis Tourist Destination

Actor Mark Ruffalo and director Ava DuVernay embraced the boycott call. Amoeba Music stores announced it would pull a full-page ad and reconsider its future business relationship with the paper. Bill Esparza, a renowned Los Angeles writer on all things tacos, announced he was pulling out of the “Tacolandia” festival he helped create and ran in partnership with LA Weekly.

“I’m taking this #TacoTuesday to announce that after 5 years as the curator and host of @LAWeekly’s Tacolandia, I can no longer be a part of this event,” Esparza wrote on Twitter on Dec. 12. “I won’t support @briancalle or his band of LA hating investors.”

RELATED STORY

California Pulls Drugged-Driving Ad Critics Said Promoted Cannabis

‘Working to Save LA Weekly’

The new owners pushed back. They have a strategy for the paper’s comeback, they insist, and cannabis is part of their strategy.

‘We have been targeting dispensaries’ because the new owners ‘represent the opposite of what I think marijuana is supposed to be.’

Jeff Weiss, boycott leader

“We believe we can develop a business model that works to save LA Weekly,” Welch said. “We see opportunities to expand our business events (and) cannabis advertising as legalization moves forward in California.” He said the new ownership hopes to increase cannabis revenues from ads for cannabis products while improving the Weekly’s online traffic and media partnerships.

That could be difficult, though, if the paper’s cannabis advertisers abandon the Weekly.

Weiss and others upset with the Weekly sale have been contacting Los Angeles cannabis businesses, urging the very advertisers the new owners counted on for the paper’s revival to join the boycott.

“We specifically have been targeting dispensaries–because these men [who bought LA Weekly] represent the opposite of what I think marijuana is supposed to be,” Weiss told Leafly. “It is supposed to expand your mind and relieve your anxiety. It’s a benevolent medicine. But these men represent toxicity. Their actions have been nothing but toxic to the citizens of Los Angeles and the writers of Los Angeles.”

Dispensaries: Caught in the Middle

The LA Weekly’s new owners are counting on cannabis ads to help sustain the paper. MedMen, one of the LA area’s best-known cannabis companies, is weighing its options. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

So far, cannabis industry advertisers don’t appear to be pulling their prized display ads out of the paper. But the turmoil and turnover at the Weekly is stirring concerns in the cannabis sector over whether the paper can remain a productive vehicle for advertisers wanting to reach its hip, culturally connected audience.

‘Unless we feel some confidence the LA Weekly will be able to retain its readers in this progressive, cannabis-friendly community, we will have to reconsider’ doing business with the paper.

Daniel Yi , Communications Director for MedMen

“California is about to legalize pot and Los Angeles is going to be the capital of this industry and the LA Weekly has been ahead of the curve in covering this legitimate industry,” Daniel Yi, communications director for MedMen, told me last week, prior to the Jan. 1, 2018  start of adult-use sales. MedMen operates two cannabis dispensaries in the Los Angeles region, with a third L.A. store about to open downtown.

MedMen, which also has retail dispensaries open in West Hollywood and Santa Ana, has an advertising contract with the LA Weekly that runs through early January, 2018. Yi, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, says the company is sympathetic to the boycott calls and may reconsider doing business with the Weekly after the current contract expires. Key in the decision, he said, is whether the paper’s editorial quality and readership diminish.

“I appreciate what the boycott people are saying,” Yi said. “I think they have reason to be concerned about the ownership…Unless we feel some confidence the LA Weekly will be able to retain its readers in this progressive, cannabis-friendly community, we will have to reconsider.

“They just laid off all but one staffer in the newsroom–and that should give anybody pause.”

Decision Time When the Contract Expires

Also concerned about the tumult is Michael Garganese Jr., co-manager of California vaporizer cartridge company, Lola Lola, which hopes to expand its market reach through Los Angeles’ retail cannabis stores. Based in San Francisco, Lola Lola recently began advertising in the Weekly, its first ad partnership with an alt weekly. Lola Lola paid for ads through this month, but now the controversy is unsettling, Garganese said.

“We haven’t heard much about it, other than the staff got fired,” Garganese said. “I don’t know much about the shake-up or why it happened. I want to support the journalists. But I think it’s a little bit premature for us to make a decision on that.”

“We have our advertising campaign in,” he said last week. “It is set and done for December and January. We will be monitoring the situation and making choices as it all plays out.”

California Pulls Drugged-Driving Ad Critics Said Promoted Cannabis

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California officials on Friday pulled an ad aimed at discouraging stoned driving after critics said it glorified and promoted cannabis use.

The public service announcement was rolled out as California began allowing licensed stores to sell marijuana products to adults on Jan. 1.

The majority of the ad featured people talking about why they consume cannabis.

[embedded content]

One man says “I just like it.” A woman says it helps her with her anxiety and another says “it helps me feel normal.” It closed with them saying they never drive while high, and “DUI doesn’t just mean booze.”

Office of Traffic Safety director Rhonda Craft said in an email Friday that the agency shares “the concerns expressed over certain elements” of the ad and would work to refine the message.

RELATED STORY

Love the Drug, Hate the Driver: Canada’s Pro-Cannabis/Anti-DUI Ad Campaign 

“The intent, however, was to address as many of the reasons people choose to consume cannabis in a way that resonates with this demographic in hopes that they listen,” she wrote.

The ad will be replaced with a different one produced last year that warns that smoking cannabis, unlike cigarettes, can result in charges for driving under the influence.

The ads had a $1 million budget for airtime, plus production costs, and appeared in several of California’s major media markets.

Critics said the ad resembled alcohol ads that present a glorified image of a product and remind users at the end to “please drink responsibly.”

RELATED STORY

Study Finds Alcohol 10 Times Deadlier Than Cannabis on the Road

“If the state wants to reinforce the idea that DUIs can happen for smoking pot, it should be pretty easy for them to do without throwing out the claims for the benefits of smoking pot, especially when some of them aren’t entirely supported by everybody,” said Paul Mitchell, a Sacramento political consultant who had criticized the ads on Twitter.

On Monday, California opened what is expected to be the world’s largest legal market for cannabis as states in the West have warmed to the long-banned drug.

The legalization push has prompted concerns from law-enforcement officials that it would lead to an uptick in impaired driving. There’s no simple test to check for marijuana impairment as there is for alcohol with a breathalyzer.

San Francisco Goes Legal: Live Updates

Editor’s Note: San Francisco’s adult-use era opened today, with a handful of stores licensed and operating across the city. Leafly’s Chris Roberts will update the scene throughout the morning.

Update, 8:01am PST“Good morning everybody. We’re open,” besuited Kevin Reed said as he cut a red ribbon across the door of his storefront. And with that, the marijuana legalization era in San Francisco began. 

Five customers were in line. First purchase honor went to Jesse Stout, one of Green Cross’s company lawyers.

Jesse Stout makes the first adult-use purchase at Green Cross in San Francisco this morning.

Update, 7:22am PST–“Okay, one [customer] just arrived,” Reed texts.

Update, 7:20am PSTMaybe all this last minute permitting is bad for business, or maybe cannabis consumers have legalization fatigue: 40 minutes before the first sale of legal cannabis in san Francisco, “not one single person” outside the Green Cross dispensary, founder and CEO Kevin Reed tells me.

Today’s a big day in marijuana history: The first day of legal sales to all adults 21 and over in San Francisco, the medical cannabis movement’s cradle.

Beginning at 8 a.m. today, six of the city’s roughly three dozen storefront marijuana dispensaries began taking customers without requiring medical-marijuana paperwork.

They are: The Apothecarium, Grassroots, The Green Cross, Harvest on Geary, Medithrive, and ReLeaf Herbal Cooperative.

Green Cross and Grassroots both opened at 8 a.m., with Apothecarium and Medithrive opening after 9 a.m.

Thirty-one of the city’s 46 existing medical marijuana storefronts and delivery services sought licenses from the state to start sales today.

After reviewing security plans, good neighbor policies, and proposals to employ locals and people of color, the city’s Office of Cannabis recommended seven dispensaries to receive approval, and the vital state license, from the California Bureau of Cannabis Control.

And just as it did last weekend, the BCC issued licenses well into the evening on Friday, in some cases giving business owners a scant 12 to 14 hours’ notice that their customer base was about to expand exponentially.

The seventh dispensary, Shambhala Healing Center, apparently needed more paperwork from its landlord—who was away on vacation and couldn’t be reached, a disappointed owner Al Shawa told me.

For the lucky six, the emails from the BCC set off a furious scramble to open early, arrange staffing and invite a few politicians to a hastily-planned ceremony—and then make history.

Marijuana has been sold openly in this city since at least the 1970s, when Dennis Peron ran a major weed-dealing operation out of a Castro District restaurant. The first medical marijuana dispensaries in America were here, and now, five days after commercial sales began across the bay in Berkeley and Oakland (where lawmakers were just quicker to the punch), the multi-billion dollar cannabis industry has arrived.

“I would compare it to when the city tries to get the Olympics come in,” said Misha Breyburg, Medithrive’s founder. “It’s one of those moments where you feel like laughing and crying at the same time.”

Medithrive has had a tougher road than most: It was one of the dispensaries to shut down during an Obama-era crackdown in 2011-2012. One-third of San Francisco’s legal pot clubs went away. Medithrive went delivery-only, and reopened only after Congress removed funding from the Justice Department to go after medical marijuana. (Shambhala, too, survived the crackdown, and was one of the few dispensaries to challenge the local U.S. attorney in court.)

We’ll be bouncing all around the city today to see who’s heard the good news and turned out bright and early. Check back for updates.