By ZUSHA ELINSON
Published: October 29, 2011
Richard Lee, the leader of the marijuana legalization movement in California, does not appear to be intimidated by the federal government’s crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries.
Mr. Lee closed his Oakland dispensary, Coffeeshop Blue Sky, this week after the Department of Justice threatened his landlord with criminal prosecution. He then reopened it three doors down, with enormous posters of marijuana buds in the windows.
On Thursday morning, an employee was handing out fliers to customers at the new locale that read: “Thank you for your support. Together we will survive the attack. Long Live Oaksterdam.”
Oaksterdam, where the dispensary is located, is an area near downtown Oakland that was created largely by Mr. Lee, a soft-spoken libertarian and longtime activist in the marijuana reform movement. It features Oaksterdam University, a school he founded that offers classes in marijuana cultivation and business; a cannabis museum; and other marijuana-related businesses.
Last year, Mr. Lee bankrolled Proposition 19, a failed measure that would have legalized marijuana in California.
In a letter sent earlier this month, Melinda Haag, United States attorney for the Northern District of California, ordered Mr. Lee’s landlord to evict the dispensary or face criminal prosecution or forfeiture of the property, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Ms. Haag declined to comment on Mr. Lee’s case.
The move was part of a crackdown by the state’s four United States attorneys on what they described as widespread criminal activity in the rapidly growing $1 billion medical marijuana industry. The effort has heightened the tension between California, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996, and the federal government, which forbids the drug.
In the Bay Area, Ms. Haag has ordered the closings of several dispensaries near schools and parks where children play. Mr. Lee’s dispensary, one of four licensed by the City of Oakland, is around the block from the Envision Academy of Arts & Technology, a charter high school.
Ms. Haag said she had received numerous letters from people concerned about the proliferation of marijuana dispensaries in their communities, particularly near schools.
“I hope these people who believe that marijuana dispensaries should operate unfettered can step back and understand that not everyone shares their position,” Ms. Haag said.
Mr. Lee’s supporters say they believe that Mr. Lee is drawing attention because he is a pioneer and a leader of the movement to legalize marijuana.
“By sending a threat to Richard it seems like they’re trying to send a message to the movement,” said Tom Angell, who was a spokesman for the Proposition 19 campaign. “But I really don’t know what the message is besides ‘Be afraid; we know who you are.’ ”
Mr. Lee declined to comment on the letter and did not return calls about the new club, but a manager there said the move had been planned before the crackdown.
Earlier in the week, Mr. Lee said he was not afraid of being a target.
“If they do decide to prosecute me criminally,” he said, “my defense is that juries cannot be punished for their verdicts.”