Weekly Wrapup: Is the Crackdown on Medical Cannabis Businesses Ending?

During the first half of last year, the federal crackdown on medical marijuana businesses hit its apex.

More than 500 dispensaries in several states closed after their landlords received civil forfeiture notices. Federal agents raided the well-known cannabis school Oaksterdam University. Major credit card companies shut out the industry because of government pressure. And a US attorney in California moved to close the nation’s largest MMJ center, Harborside Health Center, via civil forfeiture laws.

Many cities and states – taking a cue from the federal government – began their own crackdowns on medical marijuana dispensaries, cultivation operations and similar businesses.

Those were some dark days, and a handful of industry professionals openly wondered if the whole thing was on the verge of collapse.

But something strange happened: The crackdown began to ebb as the presidential elections drew closer and then eventually stopped completely in some areas of the county.

Last week, we saw further evidence of a changing MMJ climate:

– A federal judge essentially ruled that Harborside Health Center can stay open while its forfeiture case plays out in the courts, handing the government a major legal defeat. The ruling will make it much harder for the government to simply threaten landlords with property seizure to force dispensaries out of business. The feds will have to put much more time, resources and money into this type of action going forward, making it less likely they will pursue this strategy.

– The new mayor of San Diego ordered local police to stop prosecuting dispensaries for zoning code violations, which could revive the city’s decimated MMJ industry. More than 200 dispensaries shut down in San Diego alone last year after the local US attorney’s office began a crackdown and a judge ruled that cannabis centers are illegal under local zoning laws. The mayor’s move sets the stage for dozens of centers to reopen.

There are several possible reasons behind the slowdown in the government’s crackdown. Perhaps the Obama administration wanted to simply appear tough on medical cannabis during the reelection campaign to offset any criticisms that he let the industry grow out of control under his watch. At the same time, the government’s case against Harborside has backfired so far – as have legal challenges to MMJ  in Arizona – making it more difficult to shut down dispensaries.

And the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington represents a whole new headache for the government. Suddenly medical cannabis doesn’t seem quite so bad. Also, the fact that two states voted to legalize marijuana – and several more are considering it this year – signals a shift in public opinion about the drug. Maybe the government is finally paying attention.

To be clear, many risks remain, and cannabis professionals should not be lulled into a false sense of security. There have been a handful of raids in the past few weeks, and the crackdown could theoretically intensify at any time. Everyone dealing directly with marijuana potentially faces prosecution and jail time.

But this marks a turning point for the entire industry, and optimism about the future of the cannabis business is at its highest point in years.

Other top stories in MMJ Business Daily last week:

Medical Cannabis Company Bypasses Industry Hotspots for New HQ

Q&A With Attorney Henry Wykowski

5 Advertising Strategies for Dispensaries