In marijuana policy, the confusing smoke signals continue to burn

In a city that hosts a pot expo, Tony Jalali thought renting space to medical marijuana outlets was perfectly legal. Guess again.

Marijuana policy, like immigration policy, is something the country just can't seem to get right.

For the latest evidence of how confusing pot laws can be, just take a look at Anaheim, where a property owner is fighting a federal government attempt to seize his two-story commercial building, which is worth about $1.5 million.

Tony Jalali's crime?

On two occasions he rented one of his 12 office spaces to medical marijuana dispensaries, thinking such operations were perfectly legal in California.

But the feds see things differently. After an undercover Anaheim police officer used a doctor's recommendation card to purchase $37 worth of marijuana from the tenant, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration swooped in, and Jalali was notified last year that the federal government had initiated proceedings to seize the entire building in which the sale had taken place.

It's not hard to understand why Jalali was confused by mixed signals on marijuana policy, or why he was unaware of an Anaheim ordinance prohibiting dispensaries in the city. For one thing, there were other dispensaries in town when he rented space to an operator. And at its convention center, Anaheim hosts an annual event billed as the "the world's biggest marijuana festival."

"I saw banners on Artesia Boulevard," said Jalali. "Kush Expo. City of Anaheim."

That's right. Anaheim is home to a gigantic annual pot emporium, with more smoke in the air than you get from the average California wildfire.

Last month's extravaganza featured a "Hot Kush Girl Contest" and awards for the "best strains" in Southern California. Festival attendees were informed they couldn't sample the goods without marijuana recommendations from doctors, but no worries.

"Doctors will be on site!"

After looking at photos of the Kush Expo, I'm guessing that nearby Disneyland is only the second-happiest place on earth. And I'm wondering why the feds didn't just seize the convention center.

Adding to Jalali's confusion is the fact that California voters approved medical cannabis in 1996. Even the U.S. attorney's office in recent years has sent confusing signals as to where it stands.

"I had no idea I was doing anything wrong," said Jalali, who kicked out his pot tenant as soon as he got the seizure notice last year. But that wasn't enough to call off the dogs, and Jalali is still fighting to save his property in federal court, with the next hearing scheduled for Monday.

"I have property rights in this country," said Jalali, a computer engineer married to a dentist, with two kids in college. "I pay my taxes. I obey the law. I have a spotless record."

Jalali said he moved to the U.S. from Iran in 1978 to enjoy the benefits of country where rule of law prevails. He never dreamed the government could take his property without even accusing him of a crime. The city has claimed it sent two notices about problems with a dispensary to Jalali's home in Irvine, according to a Jalali attorney, but he denies receiving anything. As for the U.S. attorney's office, which initiated the seizure, it has admitted in court that it sent no warning to Jalali before moving to snatch property he bought in 2003 as a nest egg investment.

Not that it's any solace, but Jalali has lots of company. One of his attorneys, Matthew Pappas, represents four other Southern California clients with similar seizures. Another of Jalali's attorneys, Larry Salzman of the Institute for Justice, said the Los Angeles branch of the U.S. attorney's office has filed 30 civil forfeiture cases against Southern California landlords with marijuana dispensaries since 2011, and sent "threatening letters" to an additional 500 landlords.

This is happening in other states as well.

"But California is really ground zero for the use of forfeiture in states that have decriminalized marijuana," said Salzman, who added that state law prohibits forfeiture of property unless the owner is convicted of a crime.

Salzman suggested a motive other than cracking down on drug use. He said that under what's called "equitable sharing," federal and local agencies are sharing the proceeds from confiscating property.

"If they take Tony's building," said Salzman, "the money is split between the Drug Enforcement Administration and the city of Anaheim. That financial incentive has driven a literal explosion in civil forfeiture activity…."

A spokesman for the Anaheim city attorney told me there'd be no comment on the Jalali case while it's being litigated.

Thom Mrozek, a U.S. attorney spokesman, said the sale of marijuana is against federal law and the "vast majority" of California's medical dispensaries do not comply with state law, either because they are for-profit operations or because they do not serve as primary caregivers. He said most of the 30 cases have not resulted in seizures, but that landlords in 11 cases have forked over a total of $532,000 to settle. And he added that his office is responding to an explosion of dispensaries that led to lots of problems for cities and for neighbors of the pot shops.

No doubt, many shops used the medical cover to sell pot for recreational use. But why not stop with the mixed signals, end the winless and costly war on drugs, and legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, which is nowhere near as big a social or medical problem as perfectly legal alcohol?

And if we're not yet ready for that, can't the feds simply shut an "illegal" pot dispensary rather than steal an entire building from a law-abiding landlord?

steve.lopez@latimes.com

 

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