The federal prosecutor who handles marijuana crimes in Colorado said in court Friday that she paid deference to state law initially when deciding whether to file criminal charges against a medical-marijuana dispensary manager.
The revelation came when Assistant U.S. Attorney M.J. Menendez was talking about a June 2011 raid on a marijuana-growing warehouse in northeast Denver that at first resulted in no prosecution. It was the first time a federal prosecutor in Colorado has admitted to declining to pursue criminal charges against a medical-marijuana business because of evidence of compliance with state law.
All marijuana-growing is illegal under federal law, and U.S. Justice Department officials have said marijuana businesses are subject to federal prosecution at any time, regardless of state law. Menendez, too, criticized Colorado's medical-marijuana business laws as a " mess" and said allowing people to ignore federal law in the name of following state law would be ruinous.
"We cannot have flagrant disregard of federal law and still come out with a society we want to live in," she said.
Menendez made her comments during the first part of a sentencing hearing for Ha Do, a former medical-marijuana dispensary manager who pleaded guilty to marijuana-distribution charges in federal court in October. Do, the manager of the now-defunct Earth's Medicine dispensary on Federal Boulevard in Denver, was charged with three others in connection with a warehouse at 3885 Forrest St. that police raided in October 2011.
Do's brother, Hai, and son, Nathan, were also charged, as was Richard Crosse, the warehouse's owner. Nathan Do has since died.
The October raid was the second time police had busted the Forrest Street warehouse. Denver police, with federal agents, had also raided the warehouse in June 2011. After both raids — during each of which agents seized more than 1,000 cannabis plants — Do said the warehouse was compliant with state medical-marijuana law. Law enforcement agents said it wasn't.
Menendez said in court Friday that she initially gave Do the benefit of the doubt and declined to file charges after the June raid.
"I said that it looked like Mr. Do had made a lot of efforts (to comply with state law) and that, under the dictates of the Justice Department, I'm going to focus my resources elsewhere," Menendez said, explaining why she initially overlooked the violation of federal law.
But, after Do and his associates again began growing at the warehouse, Menendez said enough was enough.
"We had flagrancy," she said. "We had disregard for the law."
Do's attorney, Harvey Steinberg, continued to maintain that Do had made a good-faith effort to comply with state law. Steinberg turned over numerous documents Friday that he said showed Do had tried to obtain the proper state licenses for the warehouse. He also said state law was too complicated and confusing for anyone to follow perfectly.
"I have a client who made every effort to try to comply with Colorado law," Steinberg said. " This is not your 'illicit' marijuana grow."
Addressing the judge, Do, who emigrated from Vietnam in 1980, said he saw the dispensary as a legitimate family business.
"I tried so hard to get licensing with the state," he said. "I got six different licenses to cover every corner. ... I'm ashamed to my family. I feel guilty inside. I'm a failure."
Menendez agreed that state law was complicated, and she said complexity is just one thing that now makes prosecuting federal marijuana cases in Colorado so difficult.
"There have been days ... where I have woken up and thought, 'Lord, just give me a good methamphetamine case. Something simple,' " Menendez said in court Friday.
Under his plea agreement with the government, Do could receive up to two years in prison. U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn, though, said he needs more time to read through the documents purporting to establish compliance with state law. Do is now scheduled to be sentenced on March 5.