By Peter Hecht
phecht@sacbee.com
Published: Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 – 6:39 am

They are the public face of a litigious battle to redefine federal authority on medical marijuana.

With emotion and printed placards – “Marijuana is medicine, Let states regulate!” – about 200 people protested at the U.S. courthouse in Sacramento Wednesday against a federal crackdown on California dispensaries and property owners leasing to medical cannabis businesses.

But the real action may result from five lawsuits filed in recent days against U.S. government officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, California’s four U.S. attorneys and President Barack Obama’s director of national drug control policy.

The suits assert that federal prosecutors are violating equal protection laws and states’ rights, and constitutional protections for in-state commerce. The ultimate goal may be to force the government to negotiate a settlement that spells out what it will tolerate in California and other states permitting medical marijuana use.

“We would like to get a rational dialogue going with the federal government about how to handle medical cannabis in California,” said Matt Kumin, a lead attorney in lawsuits filed in each of the state’s federal judicial districts. The suits seek injunctions to stop the seizure of properties of landlords leasing to medical marijuana operations.

A fifth suit, by the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, seeks to bar federal actions “to dismantle the laws of the state of California.”

Don Heller, a former Sacramento federal prosecutor, said the suits could force a definitive answer by the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of federal “supremacy and states rights and who shall prevail with respect to marijuana.”

“It has been nibbled at and now it really should be decided,” he said.

In an announcement last month, U.S. prosecutors broadly asserted that dispensaries in California are profiteering in violation of both federal and state law. They’ve brought charges that some bad actors have trafficked medical marijuana out of state or pocketed millions of dollars from cultivation operations for marijuana stores.

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in Sacramento said in a statement Wednesday that California prosecutors “will continue to enforce federal narcotics laws, unless and until ordered to do otherwise.”

In contrast, marijuana advocates are suing on behalf of people such as Ryan Landers of Sacramento, who uses medical marijuana for symptoms of AIDS, or Briana Bilbray, a cancer patient who uses cannabis and the daughter of San Diego Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray.

The suits also challenge threats to seize properties of landlords who rent to dispensaries, including the El Camino Wellness Center, one of Sacramento’s leading medical marijuana outlets, or the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, California’s longest operating medicinal cannabis provider.

Kumin said plaintiffs want to know why the federal government has taken little action in Colorado, which permits a heavily regulated, for-profit medical marijuana industry, while launching aggressive actions in California.

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