THE DRUG ENFORCEMENT Administration has notified more than 150 Los Angeles property owners that their fortunes and their sacred honor are forfeit to the state. What crime must a landlady commit to deserve this punishment? Renting to a tenant who operates a medical marijuana dispensary. The DEA sent out letters last week notifying owners that they stand to lose their properties and face 20 years in prison for allowing their buildings to be used for "unlawfully ... distributing or using a controlled substance."
The only good news in this deplorable new bullying tactic by the federal drug cops is that if you're a property owner, your least-bad option is fairly clear. You can honor the will of California voters, allow the dispensary to stay and lose your property, or you can evict the tenant and risk a costly lawsuit. You're better off taking your chances with the lawsuit, although the DEA will not admit this. A representative of the agency's L.A. office uses the Orwellian phrase "these letters were merely to educate property owners," but concedes that in fact the letters serve to weaken the legal position of landlords.
That's because the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 specifies that landlords must have provable knowledge of drug activities to be subject to asset forfeiture. The DEA's letter-writing campaign establishes that paper trail, while coyly avoiding giving property owners any advice about what to do. The agency confirms, however, that the "long-term goal" is to get landlords to evict dispensaries. Nor is this strictly a private property matter; public property is at risk, as the city of West Hollywood found out a few years ago when the DEA seized $300,000 the city had provided to help purchase a building for a dispensary.
As they have for the last several years, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) are sponsoring an amendment that would kill funding for federal efforts to preempt state medical marijuana initiatives, and although Congress should in general avoid this kind of procedural finagling, it would at least halt the DEA's efforts to thwart the will of voters and legislatures in 12 states. And if the DEA refuses to listen, Congress should consider doing away with civil asset forfeiture altogether.