U.S. attorney breaks silence on medical-marijuana battle
Details from last week’s Benjamin Wagner chat with press and pot advocates
By David Downs
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This article was published on 03.08.12.
Medical-cannabis patients and providers should expect ongoing persecution in California. However, media backlash due to the nearly half-year-old federal crackdown is affecting at least one prominent drug warrior: United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California Benjamin Wagner.
Wagner broke the Department of Justice’s near silence with regard to the crackdown during a candid, hour-long talk and question-and-answer session last Tuesday at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon. The $30-a-plate affair took place on the 15th floor of 1201 K Street, and inside, Wagner admitted that the cannabis cleanup was the idea of the four U.S. Attorneys in California, not Washington, D.C.
The four were upset because of what Wagner called “flagrant” marijuana sales in the state. So they declared war on medical marijuana last October, sending out hundreds of forfeiture-warning letters to dispensaries across California. His office is in the process of seizing at least one dispensary in Sacramento, while officials have closed more or less every dispensary in Sacramento County.
He reiterated that they’re not going after patients and caregivers, rather interstate transporters, huge pot farmers and illicit dispensaries grossing tens of thousands of dollars per day in cash.
But the media critique of the war is wearing on Wagner, it seems. He said he counts on good press to create a “deterrent effect” in regard to cases of mortgage fraud, child exploitation, human trafficking and major gang violence. But he’s not getting any of that.
“I think that the members of the press would be forgiven for thinking that marijuana enforcement is all that we do,” he said. “It is far from the most important thing that we do. I have many other higher priorities that have a much bigger impact on public safety. I did not seek the position of U.S. attorney in order to launch a campaign against medical marijuana.”
Wagner was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and has been with the DOJ since 1992, primarily in the Eastern District. When he and the other three U.S. attorneys took office at the end of 2009, “We found that we were in the middle of an explosion of marijuana cultivation and sales,” he said.
Federal policy didn’t change, rather “what we saw … was an unregulated free-for-all in California in which huge amounts of money was being made selling marijuana … to virtually anybody who wanted to get stoned.”
Wagner said that’s not what California voters approved. Stores marking up pot 200 percent is “not about sick people. That’s about money.”
His reaction has been “quite measured,” he said. Most dispensaries just got warning letters.
“In a few instances, after ample warnings, we’ve brought civil-enforcement actions while reserving criminal prosecution for the most flagrant violators of not only federal law but state law,” he said.
He referred to cases such as one where seven Roseville and Fresno suspects were indicted in February for growing pot with doctor’s recommendations and running a dispensary as a front to traffic it to seven states in the Midwest and South.
Wagner also warned that a season of raids in the Central Valley is coming in 2012, and that mega pot farmers are on notice that if they plant again this year, their land could be seized.
He tried to make the case that pot is just a fraction of what his office does, referring to 61 indictments on mortgage fraud last fiscal year.
During audience questions, activists asked why the federal government says marijuana has “no medical use,” yet the United States has patented its ingredient, cannabidiol, for treating strokes.
“What I know about marijuana as medicine you can probably put in a thimble,” he said.
But health policy is not his job, he said. “My advice to you is to write your congressman.”
Sacramento lawyer Alan Donato asked for guidelines for local dispensaries to avoid federal attention.
“I’m not in a position to be of much comfort,” Wagner said. “You don’t ask the CHP, ‘How many miles over the speed limit can I go before you pull me over?’”
Stephen Downing, a retired Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, asked if the failed drug war would ever make Wagner say “Enough is enough” to his boss, Attorney General Eric Holder.
“That’s hard to say,” Wagner said. “I totally understand the debate over legalization as opposed to criminalizing narcotics.
“It really depends on what the cost-benefits are. Marijuana is obviously not nearly as destructive as [methamphetamine]. The risks in legalizing marijuana may be significantly less that meth.”
But prescription drugs “are the biggest, worst drug problem in terms of trends … [and] that’s a legal drug.”
SN&R news intern Matthew W. Urner got the biggest attention of the lunch, asking Wagner if he ever tried the second-most-commonly used mind-altering substance in America, and if so, what he thought.
“Uh,” said Wagner, “I’ll say that I went to college.”