When Californians run afoul of state or local cannabis laws, they need to be prepared to deal with a wide variety of predicaments. Trying to understand the laws and procedures that apply in these various fora can be a daunting task. Federal law that criminalizes all cannabis activity complicates the picture even further. In order to put yourself at ease, and minimize the damage to your finances and liberty, it’s wise to consult with attorneys who have substantial experience in these fields, and will be ready to help you deal with whatever challenges come your way.
First, and possibly the most concerning, is the prospect of becoming a defendant in a criminal case. Until recently, selling even one gram of marijuana or growing even a single plant was a felony under California law, punishable by time in state prison. Between 2011-2016, under Kamala Harris’s watch as the state’s attorney general, at least 1,560 people were sent to state prisons for marijuana-related offenses. (https://freebeacon.com/politics/kamala-harris-packed-california-prisons-for-peddling-pot/). In 2011, prompted by a federal court order to reduce dangerous overcrowding in the state’s prisons, many lower-level felons began serving their time in county jails instead of state prisons . (https://www.ppic.org/publication/public-safety-realignment-impacts-so-far/). Thus, in addition to the 1,560 Californians sent to state prison for weed from 2011-2016, countless additional marijuana offenders were prosecuted under Harris and then diverted to county jails after becoming convicted felons. Currently, most cannabis offenses (including unlicensed sales, possession for sale, and cultivation) are now misdemeanors, under both local and state laws, punishable by no more than a year in county jail and a $1,000 fine, although they can still be charged as felonies in limited circumstances (like repeat convictions, sales to minors, transporting out of state, or cultivation having certain environmental impacts). Anyone unlucky enough to become a defendant in a federal cannabis case faces much worse consequences, with people convicted subject to spending decades or even life in federal prison due to draconian sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums.
In addition to cannabis criminal offenses, prosecutors commonly file “white collar” criminal charges including felony conspiracy, money laundering, and tax evasion counts. Often, they will file dozens of such felony counts in the same complaint, by charging separate counts for separate transactions and tax years, and use the pressure of the criminal charges and threats of substantial prison time to coerce a large financial settlement.
Any time you are accused of violating cannabis laws, whether or not you catch a criminal case, you are also likely to face significant “administrative” fines and penalties from local governments. While these don’t sound too bad, they can often add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars of financial liability. In addition, if you choose to fight them, you don’t have all the same due process protections that you would have in criminal court, and local governments are often eager to use the proceedings as money-making operations for the city. Thankfully, by appealing the fines, and effectively advocating for any defenses or mitigating circumstances, attorneys can often get the fines substantially reduced, if not eliminated, and in some cases, can even help turn your unlicensed cultivation to a fully-licensed operation allowed by local and state authorities.
Next, you may be subject to asset forfeiture proceedings. In these cases, police and local prosecutors “seize” your assets, including potentially cash, bank accounts, vehicles, and/or homes, and make you prove that they were acquired via a “legitimate” source in order to get them back. Like administrative fines, officials typically use asset forfeiture as government fundraisers, and police officers are often allowed to keep money they seize to purchase new equipment or fund their departments. This creates a financial incentive for prosecutors to get aggressive on these matters. But, with the help of an experienced attorney advocating for your legal defenses and compiling any information about non-criminal sources of the assets, you may be able to get at least a portion of the seized assets back if not all of them. Sometimes, asset forfeiture matters can be used bargaining chips in negotiating resolutions of criminal cases.
If you have any existing cannabis licenses from local and/or state governments, you are also subject to having those licenses revoked on the basis of any alleged unlicensed cannabis activity, and/or losing your ability to be an owner of a licensed cannabis business for an extended period of time. A skilled attorney can help you navigate through the licensing disciplinary process, including compiling any information supporting an innocent explanation for any irregular activity, and helping to demonstrate that you are serious about fixing any issues and running a clean operation going forward. If successful, you may be able to avoid losing your license, by convincing the local or state agency to drop the matter, or agreeing to some lower-level discipline such as a fine.
Finally, you could be subject to losing your job. Many employers have policies prohibiting employees from committing certain types of offenses, and could apply those policies to terminate your employment if you are accused or convicted of certain cannabis-related conduct. Lower-level staffers in the Biden-Harris Administration learned this lesson the hard way, being recently fired when it came to light that they had smoked marijuana in the past. (https://www.thedailybeast.com/biden-white-house-sandbags-staffers-sidelines-dozens-for-pot-use). An attorney can help with your employment situation, by helping you navigate through any procedural process or negotiating an informal resolution that would save your job.
In sum, getting accused of cannabis-related misconduct can cause you all kinds of problems. Often times, the best course of action is to hire an attorney experienced in all these fields to help you minimize your damage so that you can move on and avoid losing your liberty, your money, or your job.
Author: Raza Lawrence ESQ. (Dark Matters)