Earlier this summer, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado decided that “noxious odors” from a pot farm could be lowering property values and creating a nuisance and that the farm’s neighbor could sue them.
The decision came after a civil suit was filed by the pot farm’s neighbors, under a federal racketeering law, known as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, which is normally used in organized crime cases, embezzlement, racketeering, etc.—not for your local pot warehouse vs. the next-door neighbor dispute.
Having said that, this case could set a nasty precedent by creating a situation in which private citizens can go around state law and utilize federal law, like RICO, under the protection that weed is still federally illegal.
Rolling Stone found everything about this case to be important—from the aforementioned implications to the mysterious organization behind it.
According to legal filings, the “offensive smell” began when a group of licensed growers set up their warehouse beside a residential development. The pot farm’s neighbors, who apparently only visit on weekends, suddenly decided they didn’t care for the smell of marijuana and worried that it was bringing down the value of their own property. So they called their lawyer… Or did they?
No, actually the whole case is being paid for by a D.C.-based nonprofit called the Safe Streets Alliance, which has very little online presence with the exception of this lawsuit and a few other similar cases. Lawyers representing the pot growers have called it “a fake organization” and “a sham.”
The farm owners, according to Rolling Stone, would never have been able to mount such a legal challenge on their own. Apparently, Safe Streets Alliance found them, instead of the other way around.
No one knows who exactly belongs to the Safe Streets Alliance or where it gets its money.
Brian Barnes, the attorney representing the anti-weed organization and the odor-complaining family, claims he cannot provide any details about the group’s funding or membership, citing attorney-client confidentiality. What?
So why this case and why the RICO Act?
Obviously, like any other crop, weed cannot be contained. It grows, it’s alive, it has a smell. We all know this.
According to attorney Barnes, the goal of the case was “to set a precedent that this is a thing that can be done, and there are consequences for people in the marijuana business.” Yikes.
The lawsuit looked to RICO because it helps the Department of Justice go after not only the mafia, but also allows private citizens to bring civil suits against anyone who “assists” in committing a crime that harms their property or business.
This is where the problem lies.
“The commercialization of cannabis has had real consequences for people and places that want no involvement with the drug,” reported Rolling Stone. “Attempting, as we have, to cordon off the states and businesses and entrepreneurs and government agencies that interact with pot is delusional.”
To accuse or seek damages from someone for racketeering is essentially to go after them for the crime of committing a crime.
So, because marijuana remains federally illegal, everyone involved in legal, state-sanctioned pot markets is vulnerable under RICO.
This type of dispute represents the glaring problem with the country’s marijuana policy.
While many, in these dark days of Trumpism, miss our former president, it must be said that Obama left the cannabis legalization issue woefully unfinished by allowing states to go forward with legalization but not legalizing weed on a federal level.
Next year, the suit will go back to district court.
Unless other appeals courts issue contradictory rulings and the Supreme Court decides to take up the case, the 10th Circuit decision will stand, “providing a road map for people who hate marijuana to initiate the collapse of legal weed in America.”