The New Federal War On Pot Dispensaries

| Thu Jul. 12, 2012 3:38 PM EDT

Cannabis station, a medical marijuana dispensary, is located at the site of a former gas station in Denver, Colorado.

Remember when the feds pledged to end raids on medical marijuana dispensaries that complied with state laws?

Psych! Like a trippy screen saver undergoing a phase change, the Justice Department has morphed its marijuana stance back into what it looked like during the Bush era, going on the offensive against dozens of medical pot operations. This week federal agents moved to evict Harborside Health Center, the nation's most respected (and by all accounts, most legally compliant) dispensary.

The Justice Department has certainly done a lot of weed-whacking in recent years, but mostly just around the fringes of California's $1.3 billion medical pot industry. Staying true to its word, it has targeted dispensaries that violated state law by, for instance, opening up too close to schools and parks. And it has used an obscure provision of the tax code to stipulate that dispensaries cannot deduct routine expenses such as rent and wages. It claims Harborside owes the IRS back taxes totalling $2.5 million.

But this week the department appeared to cross the line, breaking its 2009 pledge to leave state-compliant dispensaries alone. On Tuesday it filed papers to seize the properties in Oakland and San Jose where Harborside does business, alleging that it is "operating in violation of federal law." 

In a statement, US Attorney Melinda Haag said she was now moving to target "marijuana superstores."

"The larger the operation, the greater the likelihood that there will be violations of the state's medical marijuana laws," she said. 

Of course, size doesn't necessarily equate to disregard for the law. And either way, going after dispensaries that might break the law is a much different standard than targeting actual lawbreakers. But there you have it—even as the public becomes ever more tolerant of pot, the feds are becoming less so.

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