Pubdate: Thu, 06 Aug 2015
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: Chem Tales
Copyright: 2015 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts


Last week, Melinda Haag, who served as the United States Attorney in 
San Francisco since 2010, announced her resignation effective Sept. 
1. During her five years as the federal Justice Department's local 
prosecutor, the former corporate lawyer became the only local 
official I ever saw mocked in effigy.

A ten-foot-tall Haag caricature was a regular sight at protests in 
the Bay Area in 2012 and 2013. When not in public, the Haag effigy 
lived at cannabis industry trade school Oaksterdam University, one of 
the many marijuana businesses to suffer under Haag. Oaksterdam was 
lucky: the business stayed open after a federal law enforcement raid.

The same can't be said for the estimated 600 dispensaries across the 
state that closed during a coordinated crackdown led by Haag and her 
counterparts in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego.

Legal experts praise Haag's record as an even-handed, effective, and 
scandal-less prosecutor who went after giants like PG&E, Wal-Mart, 
and CalPERS with success. Cannabis, they say, was an 
extremely-limited sideshow. "She got Wal-Mart to plead guilty to 
criminal charges - she didn't prosecute anybody for medical 
marijuana," said Rory Little, a law professor at UC Hastings. "I 
thought Melinda was amazingly gentle on that issue."

Meanwhile, Haag's former picketers - many of whom are now locked out 
of the rapidly-growing cannabis industry - are celebrating her exit 
with predictable gloating. "Ding dong, the witch is dead," said Cathy 
Smith, former proprietor of SoMa dispensary HopeNet, one of a dozen 
San Francisco dispensaries to close after receiving a threatening 
letter from the U.S. Attorney's office (and one of several people to 
utter those same words to SF Weekly). Reason magazine went as far as 
to call Haag, who won an award from the Lawyers Committee for Civil 
Rights in 2003, a "loathsome drug warrior."

Vilifying only Haag for the crackdown isn't fair. It's almost certain 
that she and the other U.S. attorneys took direction from Washington, 
where alarmed Obama officials viewed the massive growth in the 
unregulated California marijuana trade as a political liability for 
the president.

Further, Oaksterdam was the only legit cannabis business to suffer a 
military-style raid; everyone else was shut down with a letter sent 
via certified mail.

At the same time, cartels and other crooks are still growing 
marijuana in national forests, property forfeiture actions are still 
pending against dispensaries in Oakland and Berkeley (one botched 
forfeiture in San Francisco ended last year), and recreational 
cannabis in California is a near-inevitability.

If weed was a sideshow, why get involved in the first place? That 
question has never been fully or honestly answered.

Each U.S. attorney had discretion as to who to shut down. (Haag's 
counterpart in San Diego, Laura Duffy, briefly flirted with extending 
her crackdown to news outlets that took advertising dollars from 
cannabis businesses.)

According to the DoJ, dispensaries were selected for closure because 
they were either too close to schools or somehow breaking state law. 
In every instance, no specific allegations of lawbreaking were made - 
and each dispensary was by all accounts compliant with local law.

Haag mysteriously picked some of the Bay Area's model dispensaries 
for closure, despite protest from state and federal elected 
officials. Vapor Room on Haight Street, known for providing services 
to veterans, was shut down. So was Divinity Tree in the Tenderloin, 
for being too close to a park that is to this day frequented by 
heroin and crack dealers.

This incensed mayors and members of Congress. Earlier this year, U.S. 
Reps. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) and Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) sent a letter 
to the Justice Department, inquiring why the DoJ was still pursuing 
property forfeiture actions against Harborside Health Center in 
Oakland and Berkeley Patients Group, filed by Haag in 2012 and 2013, 
respectively (a question also posed by an appeals judge).

Pursuing these cases would seem to violate the provision, snuck into 
the Cromnibus spending bill in December, which stripped the DoJ of 
funding to meddle with state-legal marijuana businesses.

Under Haag, elected officials were threatened with jail time for 
daring to try to regulate state-legal marijuana businesses. In 2010, 
the Justice Department warned Oakland officials, eager to turn around 
their struggling city with cannabis sales tax cash, that the 
Controlled Substances Act would be "vigorously enforced" if 
California voters passed Prop. 19.

Her efforts also killed off an innovative effort to regulate outdoor 
cannabis cultivation in Mendocino County. There, Sheriff's deputies 
began inspecting and marking cannabis gardens as law-abiding with 
zip-ties. In fall of 2011, federal agents raided the zip-tied garden 
of medical cannabis provider Matt Cohen, cut down his 99 plants, and 
then threatened local officials, including the sheriff and Board of 
Supervisors, with legal action if the regulation program continued. 
It was canceled, and with it went efforts to regulate outdoor 
marijuana cultivation, which is today blamed for draining streams and 
killing fish.

In this, dishonesty emerges. At times throughout the crackdown - and 
again in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News after her 
resignation was announced - Haag insisted that the "limited" 
crackdown was fueled by "community concerns."

She repeated this assertion even after mayors and members of Congress 
asked her to stop. No evidence was ever presented; a FOIA request I 
filed for these "concerns" was denied, citing pending legal action.

If there were concerns, the loudest ones was that this was not an 
issue the Justice Department should pursue, even in a limited fashion.

Haag does not deserve to be remembered as a monster. But on the drug 
war, she made questionable moves that have resulted in little more 
than the loss of jobs and tax dollars.

If cannabis was a sideshow, it was one she should have sat out.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom