Berkeley first city in nation to become a ‘sanctuary’ for cannabis

Cannabis plants for sale at Berkeley Patients Group. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The city of Berkeley is already on record saying it will not help the Trump administration in its crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

On Tuesday, the City Council made Berkeley a sanctuary of another sort; it declared it will not help the federal government crack down on cannabis businesses.

While the sale of medicinal marijuana has been legal in California for years, and recreational cannabis since January, the federal government still regards marijuana as a serious drug whose use is illegal.

The vote by the City Council means that that “no city department, agency, officer or employee can use city funds to assist in the enforcement of federal laws surrounding cannabis,” according to a press release put out by Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s office.


“Millions of peaceful Americans have been fined, arrested, imprisoned, or otherwise needlessly criminalized and stigmatized, sometimes for life, because of their use of marijuana,” Arreguín said in the statement. “This War on Drugs has cost over $1 trillion dollars and turned the U.S. into a nation of mass incarceration — imprisoning 2 million American citizens. Worse, the enforcement of marijuana and other drug laws has had a disproportionate impact on people of color. Ending this misguided policy is long overdue.”

The idea of calling Berkeley a sanctuary city for cannabis was so uncontroversial that the item was on the City Council’s consent agenda.

In contrast, the City Council spent much more time discussing whether to lower the sales tax on recreational cannabis from 10% to 5%. In the end, the City Council took that move.

The impetus for the sanctuary declaration came after Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January rescinded the “Cole memorandum,” a 2013 U.S. Department of Justice document that said U.S. Attorneys should not crack down on cannabis businesses that complied with state law. Prior to the 2013 memo, Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for Northern California had pursued forfeiture cases against landlords who rented to cannabis businesses. She stopped chasing them after the memo was issued.

But the rescission of the Cole memo has put the legality of cannabis operations in flux once again.

If the DEA comes to Berkeley, the new law means the city will not cooperate.

“The city of Berkeley does not support cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration in its efforts to undermine state and local marijuana laws,” according to the measure.