Editorial: Feds are overreaching in Mendocino

Published: Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

Mendocino County, like a lot of counties in California, has a serious marijuana problem. Commercial growers with ties to organized crime have invaded the Mendocino National Forest, making parts of this beautiful backcountry unsafe for the public.

Federal authorities are responding to this threat, but not to the degree that many north state residents would like to see. What is apparent, unfortunately, is the time and resources that federal prosecutors are devoting to a legal battle with Mendocino County. As The Bee's Peter Hecht reported on Jan. 4, a federal grand jury has subpoenaed all records kept by Mendocino County as part of its program to license medical marijuana growers.

Mendocino County set up this program in 2010 in response to California's medical marijuana law. The county wanted to cut down on a rash of illicit growing that was occurring partly in response to the growth of medical marijuana clinics. To ensure growers were only growing for dispensaries, the program requires growers to accept limits on the numbers of plants grown, undergo inspections and install fences and security cameras. In 2010 and 2011, nearly 100 pot farmers were granted county permits to grow as many as 99 plants. Another 400 were issued those years for growers with fewer than 25 plants.

Faced with warnings from federal prosecutors, Mendocino County stopped issuing more permits in March. But Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, didn't stop there. At the urging of her office, a federal grand jury in October subpoenaed the county's records of licensed growers.

The county has fought back, attempting to quash the subpoena and calling it "burdensome and oppressive." Supporters of the program say that if federal prosecutors are successful, they will drive Mendocino's pot growers back underground, adding to the lawlessness and potential for violence that pervades California's pot trade.

Running for president in 2008, President Barack Obama made clear he wanted to strike a balance between abuse of pot laws for recreational use and the needs of patients and doctors. Is cracking down on Mendocino County's program part of that "balance"? County supervisors don't think so.

"Why are the feds spending their resources to apparently go after people who participated in this program?" asks Supervisor John McCowen. "Why aren't their resources going after outlaw growers who are trespassing on public and private lands, trashing the environment and endangering the public?"

Federal prosecutors have reason to be frustrated with California. As we've stated previously, California's medical marijuana law is too vague and needs to be amended. Until the feds cracked down, the law was spawning a multitude of dispensaries far beyond the legitimate demand for medical marijuana.

But if California can be faulted for failing to fix a dopey pot law, the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder can be faulted for overreaching with federal prosecutions of those attempting to comply with this law.

In the November elections, both Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational use of marijuana. Asked about it in December, Obama said, "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal."

If it doesn't make sense to go after recreational users, why are federal prosecutors going after a California county that is attempting to comply with a much less expansive state law pertaining to medical marijuana? Is this equal application of the law?

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