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Medical pot group sues Obama administration over California crackdown

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 8:33 PM EDT, Thu October 27, 2011
Medical marijuana advocate The Holy Hemptress protests outside of the hotel where President Obama was staying on Tuesday.
Medical marijuana advocate The Holy Hemptress protests outside of the hotel where President Obama was staying on Tuesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Americans for Safe Access sues the feds for their California crackdown on medical pot
  • The suit contends the federal government is violating the Tenth Amendment
  • This month, California's four U.S. attorneys target big commercial pot growers
  • Prosecutors say the growers sell medical pot to healthy people

Los Angeles (CNN) -- A medical marijuana advocacy group sued the Obama administration Thursday, saying its policy "to subvert local and state medical marijuana laws in California" is unconstitutional.

Americans for Safe Access accused the U.S. Justice Department of deploying aggressive SWAT-style raids, prosecuting medical marijuana patients and providers, and threatening local officials for implement state medical pot laws.

The group, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California, that says it's the country's largest medical marijuana advocacy organization, cited U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag of the northern district of California in its federal lawsuit filed in San Francisco.

"Under the Tenth Amendment, the government may not commandeer the law-making function of the state or its subdivisions or indirectly through the selective enforcement of its drug laws," the lawsuit said. "It is this misuse of the government's commerce clause powers, designed to deprive the state of its sovereign ability to chart a separate course, that forms the basis of the plaintiff's claim."

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors in California announced a series of actions targeting what they characterized as the "large, for-profit marijuana industry" that has developed since the state legalized medical marijuana for select patients 15 years ago.

Four U.S. attorneys -- Benjamin Wagner, Andre Birotte Jr., Laura Duffy and Melinda Haag -- detailed in a joint press release and later a press conference in Sacramento some steps that have been taken in conjunction with federal law enforcement and local officials in California.

They include letters of warning to landlords and lien holders of places in which marijuana is being sold illegally, "civil forfeiture lawsuits against properties involved in drug trafficking activity" and numerous criminal cases. The latter refers to arrests in recent weeks related to cases filed in federal courts in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and Fresno, all part of an effort that Wagner claimed has resulted in the seizure of hundreds of pounds of marijuana, tens of thousands of plants and hundreds of thousands in cash.

Thursday's lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief and was filed on behalf of its 20,000 members in California, the medical marijuana advocacy group said.

"This case is aimed at restoring California's sovereign and constitutional right to establish its own public health laws based on this country's federalist principles," the association's chief counsel, Joe Elford, said in a statement.

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215 to exempt doctors and seriously ill patients from marijuana laws and allow them to grow and use it in treatment. The bill didn't legalize marijuana for all, but it did lead to the emergence of hundreds of dispensaries where people -- legally only those with medical conditions and a doctor's authorization -- could get the drug.

In explaining the federal crackdown earlier this month, Wagner, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, said authorities "are not focused on backyard grows with small amounts of marijuana by seriously ill people. We are targeting commercial operations, which profit from growing and distributing ... and often use the trappings of state law for cover, but in fact are abusing state law."

Haag, U.S. attorney for California's northern district, claimed that "profiteers ... motivated not by compassion, but by money" had "hijacked" the intent of voters to help those suffering from debilitating conditions. And Birotte, from California's central district, said a chief problem lies in operations that make money not by selling marijuana to the sick, but to relatively healthy people.

CNN's Rich Porter and Erica Henry contributed to this story.

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