Federal move to seize 2 Novato pot-club buildings

by Vivian Ho
SF Chronicle, April 26, 2012

Federal prosecutors are moving to seize two Novato buildings that house medical-marijuana dispensaries, following through on warnings they began issuing last fall when they announced a campaign against California’s pot clubs.

The U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco went to federal court Monday asking that the landlords of the Green Door Wellness Education Center and the neighboring Green Tiger dispensary forfeit their properties on Redwood Boulevard. By Wednesday, Green Tiger had already closed.

Federal prosecutors have sent letters to at least 300 dispensaries in California, threatening prosecution and asset forfeiture for allegedly violating federal law against marijuana distribution, said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical marijuana group.

About 300 dispensaries have voluntarily shut down, including five in San Francisco, Hermes said. Some had been pressured by federal prosecutors, and others were scared off by the government’s campaign, he said.

But Hermes said he could “count on one hand” the number of asset forfeitures the federal government has pursued.

“It’s rare for them to act on their threats, period,” Hermes said. “I think they’re trying to make an example to the broader population.”

Sara Zalkin, an attorney who specializes in marijuana cases, said she knew of no previous instances in which federal prosecutors have gone to court to seize a dispensary landlord’s building.

“They sent letters threatening landlords, basically saying that they were putting them on notice because they believed there were controlled substances being stored or distributed on their properties,” Zalkin said. “But I have not personally experienced or heard of the feds actually moving toward forfeiture.”

Under state law, distribution of marijuana for medical use is legal, but it’s illegal under federal law. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco declined to comment on the Novato cases.

The complaints prosecutors filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco cite alleged violations of federal law and municipal zoning codes.

Lawrence Pebbles, director of the Green Door Wellness Education Center, said he plans to continue business as usual until a judge tells him otherwise. He’s had a tense relationship with his landlord, David Cesena, in the past – Cesena recently tried to evict him, but a Marin County Superior Court judge ruled against him.

Cesena could not be reached for comment Thursday. Neither could Green Tiger’s landlords, Kerry and Martin O’Brien.

Pebbles opened his dispensary in April 2010. He said his client list has grown to almost 1,800, with 20 to 30 regulars a day.

“Without a legitimate, safe access, patients will be forced to seek alternatives, which are less safe, less accessible,” Pebbles said. “There’s a higher level of vulnerability when you have to go to the black market.”

He added, “There are a lot of arguments in both directions, but all I know is that prohibition didn’t work for alcohol, and it doesn’t seem to be working for cannabis either.”