By Tony C. Dreibus
When news broke that U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag is leaving office, some California dispensary owners may have been tempted to play a song from the “Wizard of Oz” about the demise of a particularly unpopular character out West.
Haag attempted to seize the assets of two of the largest and oldest marijuana dispensaries in the country and helped close hundreds of MMJ businesses in California that she said were too close to parks, playgrounds and schools.
Don’t break out the party hats and start celebrating her departure just yet, though.
Whether the climate actually improves depends on who replaces her – and there’s a chance Haag’s successor could pick up where she left off or even increase the pressure on dispensaries, California cannabis lawyers said.
“Any replacement could wage the same war Haag’s been waging all these years,” said Mike Cindrich, a San Diego attorney who practices marijuana law. “Anytime someone who is a clear enemy of the legalization movement leaves office, it’s a step in the right direction. But we don’t know who the replacement is going to be. So, yes, the celebration may be a bit premature.”
Haag will vacate her role next month as United States Attorney for the Northern District of California, a position she’s held since August 2010 when she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate after being nominated by President Barack Obama.
Despite the Ogden Memo in 2009, the Cole Memo in 2013 and a spending bill in December that was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama – all essentially saying that the federal government shouldn’t spend resources prosecuting cannabis companies that are operating within state law – she launched efforts to close hundreds of dispensaries in California.
Among her targets: Harborside Health Center and Berkeley Patients Groups, two highly respected and long-running dispensaries that helped pioneer the MMJ industry.
Haag’s office has been trying to shut them down for several years via lawsuits. Both businesses remain open as their cases work their way through the courts.
It’s uncertain how her departure will impact those cases. Still, Steve DeAngelo, the executive director of Harborside Health, said in a statement that Haag’s departure gives the company “great relief and satisfaction.”
“We hope her successor will have a more finely tuned understanding of compassion and justice than Ms. Haag has displayed, and allow Harborside to focus on serving our patients instead of battling a court case that should never have been started,” DeAngelo said.
Calls seeking comment from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California were not returned.
Even with Haag’s departure, though, dispensaries shouldn’t get too comfortable, as lawyers from the attorney’s office will continue to work cases on which they’ve spent a considerable amount of time, said Ned Frisius, a California cannabis attorney.
“The actions that are underway are not dropped merely because the person launched them is replaced,” he said. “She clearly had a serious agenda and was moving harshly against the cannabis operations, so hopefully we’ll see a change of guard lead to a change of attitude, but these processes are already underway.”
Regardless of who replaces Haag, dispensary owners will likely face legal battles in the future.
The worst-case scenario is that a candidate who opposes marijuana legalization is elected president in 2016, Cindrich said. If Haag’s replacement isn’t nominated and confirmed by then, the incoming commander-in-chief would appoint the person to take her seat.
“Theoretically, someone worse than Haag could be nominated, especially with a conservative president in office,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but something like that could happen.”
Still, it’s quite unlikely any administration – regardless of how opposed to legalization it is – would be able to put the proverbial cat back in the bag, Cindrich said. States have spent too much money on regulating medical and recreational marijuana to simply shut down the industries that are bringing them tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue.
“We have too many states with medical or adult-use laws on the books, and too many state infrastructures that relay on tax revenue,” he said. “If a new administration came in and began telling states they couldn’t do this, or picked up enforcement action, I see some large issues forming between the federal and state governments.”
Tony C. Dreibus can be reached at [email protected]