Pubdate: Sun, 05 Aug 2012
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2012 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Christopher Cadelago


Federal Mission Against Local Outlets Ends Near El Cajon; Operators 
Vow to Keep Fighting

The region's only permitted medical marijuana collective has closed 
its doors amid a lengthy legal battle, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Mother Earth Healing Alternative Cooperative, nestled in an 
industrial building outside unincorporated El Cajon, was forced to 
shutter after its landlord received a letter from the U.S. Attorney's 
Office threatening fines and seizure of the property.

California voters approved marijuana for medical use 16 years ago, 
but the drug is illegal under federal law.

Dispensary operators filed for bankruptcy in part to stave off the 
closure, but a judge last month granted the landlord permission to 
move ahead with the eviction. On Tuesday, the collective promised to 
maintain the fight even as federal prosecutors move to close 
collectives across California.

"Mother Earth will continue to pursue any and all legal remedies to 
champion safe, legal access to medical cannabis for its patients," 
said Lance Rogers, an attorney for the dispensary. "In the event they 
run out of legal remedies, they will continue to advocate for these 
causes on the federal level."

San Diego two years ago became the 10th county in the state to 
regulate dispensaries. Officials said the rules essentially limited 
collectives to 16 sites.

However, just one co-op successfully navigated the new permitting process.

Mother Earth has been in the cross hairs of federal prosecutors and 
neighborhood activists since opening on July 4, 2011. Critics of 
storefront collectives applauded the development and said they would 
use it in campaigns against local ballot initiatives that aim to 
permit and tax dispensaries.

"This just shows how much work is involved in closing these places, 
and it really is a waste of our law enforcement resources," said 
Scott Chipman, the chairman of San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods. 
"Cities and counties should be doing everything they can to keep 
these places from opening."

Fifteen employees are now out of work and more than 2,300 active 
patients will be forced to turn to unpermitted co-ops, delivery 
services, or the black market to get their doctor-recommended 
marijuana, said Bob Riedel, the spokesman and founder of Mother Earth.

Many of the patients are in treatment at reputable medical facilities 
and have lifetime recommendations for medical marijuana - a telltale 
sign that they don't have much time left to live, said Riedel, who 
shuttered his old location in Fallbrook because it would not have 
qualified for a permit.

"We have been dealing with people crying every day because they don't 
know where they are going to go to get safe medicine," he said. "This 
has been just brutal, man."

Mother Earth operated about 2,300 square feet of space in a 
15,000-square-foot industrial building near Gillespie Field. Coe 
Riedel, Bob Riedel's wife and a former U.S. Marine and Gulf War 
veteran, served as president of the three-member board of directors. 
Collective operators maintain they established and adhered to a set 
of rigorous standards.

Mother Earth and its investors, who spent more than $700,000 to get 
it up and running, believed the Obama administration would not 
interfere with medical marijuana collectives that complied with state 
and local laws, Riedel said.

More recent arguments that federal prosecutors would only target 
large-scale commercial operations seem not to be holding true, he said.

"We are a small club that deals directly with severely ill people and 
we are very picky about who we deal with," he said. "The federal 
government, the most powerful entity in the world, goes after these 
little landlords instead of dealing with the municipalities and the 
states that are creating laws that put people in jail under false pretense."

More than 200 medical marijuana collectives in San Diego and Imperial 
counties have shut down since U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy and her 
colleagues last October announced massive enforcement actions aimed 
at distributors and growers in California. Some closures also were 
attributed to lawsuits and settlements involving the San Diego City 
Attorney's Office.

Duffy and her office were closely monitoring the flow of legal action 
between Mother Earth and its landlord, Wing Avenue Investments LLC.

In a statement to local media, she said providing "medical marijuana" 
was not a defense to criminal liability or to property forfeiture.

"The United States Attorney's Office supports eviction of the 
commercial marijuana businesses, like Mother Earth, that operate 
outside of federal law," the statement said.

Among those to come to the aid of the dispensary were Democratic Rep. 
Bob Filner, a candidate for mayor of San Diego. In a July 13 letter 
to Duffy, Filner called repeated threats to the landlord a form of 
"unwarranted intimidation."

"The co-op operates under a strict county ordinance that mandates 
that the facility is inspected monthly by the San Diego Sheriff's 
Department, and according to these inspection reports, all parties 
have followed the letter of law," Filner wrote, adding, "I understand 
that you have a duty to enforce federal law, but hope that you will 
keep in mind the will of the voters of California."

That the county, which had long fought the spread of medical 
marijuana, would become the only local government agency to approve a 
dispensary, struck many as deeply ironic.

San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, the board chairman, said 
given increased federal efforts, news of the closure was not 
surprising, regardless of how the operation was permitted.

"What we really need is a law created by medical professionals that 
deals with medical marijuana in the same way we do any other 
prescription medication," Roberts said Tuesday.

"I have friends who have battled cancer and found relief from medical 
marijuana, so I understand there is a legitimate need," Roberts said.
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