According to a Reuters report, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is trying to avoid negative publicity and costly court battles by using a civil statute – Title 21, US Code, Section 881(a)(7) – that was created to seize the assets of drug traffickers. Last week, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles filed a pair of asset-forfeiture lawsuits against property owners with marijuana store tenants and sent so-called ‘warning letters’ to dozens of property owners threatening legal action if they continued to lease space to medical marijuana businesses.
‘We can get on the Internet, identify a store and have someone drive by and find out if it is operating,’ says Thom Mrozek, a DOJ spokesperson. ‘That is a whole lot different from conducting a criminal investigation, going out and making buys and conducting surveillance. These are two very different balls of wax.’
Mrozek adds that the DOJ's letters and lawsuits against commercial property owners have ‘so far been extremely effective in securing the closure of about 200 illegal marijuana storefronts in our district.’
Federal law does not recognize California's legalized medical marijuana business. However, Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, notes that the DOJ is taking this under-the-radar approach to disrupt the state's medical marijuana industry rather than risk negative publicity through overly aggressive prosecution.
"It's being done softly, because if they tried to go the harsh criminal route, there is a very good chance they would not only fail, but become even more unpopular, something you tend to not want to do going into your last election," says St. Pierre.