You Don’t Have to Be the Boss at a Legal California Pot Shop to Be Imprisoned by the Feds

Tuesday, March 04, 2014
Robert Duncan (photo: HuffPost Live)

Governor Jerry Brown expressed concern over the weekend that “potheads” might prevent California from being a “great state,” a sentiment perhaps shared by the federal government that is sending Robert Duncan to prison for two years.

Duncan, 31, struck a plea deal with the feds for his work managing grow operations at a legal medical marijuana dispensary and reported to Mendota Federal Correctional Institution near Fresno Monday. At least the state considered it legal. He was just an employee, not an owner, but was caught in the crossfire between state and federal officials over conflicting and confusing laws.

The California State University graduate took a job with MediZen after losing a sales job in the Bay Area during the recession. He was one of 75 people employed by Matthew R. Davies, a successful Stockton businessman. Davies and his partner, who supplied their seven shops with marijuana grown and stored at local warehouses, were arrested in 2011. Davies got a $100,000 fine and five years in jail.

Duncan was hoping for a better deal. “None of us had criminal records,” he told the Huffington Post. “We’re all regular guys. The only reason we got into this was because the federal government said they wouldn’t intervene.”

That was the promise from President Barack Obama when he was elected in 2008 and his Attorney General Eric Holder. They recognized that California had passed laws legalizing possession, cultivation and sale of marijuana for medical use that conflicted with federal laws which still considered the drug illegal. California legalized medical marijuana in 1996 and authorized nonprofit cooperatives as dispensaries in 2004.

But in late 2011 the four United States Attorneys representing the Department of Justice in California aggressively cracked down on dispensaries all over the state. The rationale given by the feds was that California was not properly regulating the industry it had unleashed and large operations run by presumably unsavory criminal types were a threat to the system.

The size and success of an operation was sufficient grounds for busting the owners and the landlords who rented space to them. After more than two years of raids, arrests and prosecutions, the federal government has yet to make a case that organized crime has taken advantage of the chaos to establish a presence.

Davies started his operation in 2009 and was raided two years later. More than 1,900 plants and 40 pounds of processed marijuana were hauled away from one warehouse after a SWAT team with weapons drawn and dogs at the ready swooped in in 2011. They handcuffed everyone in the place and, shortly thereafter, Duncan went looking for another job.

He took a couple of sales jobs before being promoted to sales manager, but he was indicted a year later. Since Duncan wasn’t an owner or director and didn’t have a financial stake in the Davies operation, he hoped to work a quiet plea deal that did not involve incarceration. Initially, he thought he had done that, “but as the case progressed and I learned how conservative the judge and the prosecutor were, that seemed less and less likely.”

Duncan was given a two-year sentence last December and on Monday he was driven to the prison where he turned himself in with cameras whirring.   

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Robert Duncan Begins Prison Sentence for Working in Legal Medical Pot Shop (by Ryan Grim and Dave Jamieson, Huffington Post)

Meet the Former Marijuana Dispensary Employee Going to Prison Today for Complying with State Law (by Nicole Flatow, ThinkProgress)

"I'm Going to Prison for Working at a Pot Shop That Was Legal in My State" (by Matt Ferner and Carly Schwartz, Huffington Post)

Another Big Medical Marijuana Dispensary Operator Pleads Guilty to Federal Charges (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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