The state of California is asking a federal court to reject a Justice Department lawsuit seeking to force regulators to hand over documents about several marijuana businesses.
While the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) subpoenaed the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control for the unredacted records, officials said in a court filing signed by the state attorney general on Wednesday that it did not comply with the request because the federal agency failed to adequately explain the relevance to an investigation and because state privacy laws prevent them from sharing the documents.
“In response to the subpoena,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote, “the Bureau informed the DEA that it objected to the subpoena for the following reasons: (1) the ‘subpoena does not specify the relevancy of the subpoena’ as it failed to include a statement describing how the subpoenaed records are in fact relevant to the DEA investigation, and (2) the subpoena sought information that was part of a pending licensing application investigation and was confidential, protected as a trade secret, or was otherwise protected by California privacy laws.”
Earlier this month, the Justice Department asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California to compel the cannabis regulators to comply with the subpoena, but the state says that would be improper.
“Courts have held that to obtain an enforcement order, the DEA must submit evidence showing the relevance and reasonableness of the subpoena,” the state told the court in the new filing. “Given the United States’ failure to submit such evidence, the petition should be denied.”
This is the latest development since DEA first issued the subpoena in January. The reason for the request is unclear, as the agency simply stated that it has authority to obtain the records because of violations of the Controlled Substances Act and because they are “relevant and material to a legitimate law enforcement inquiry.”
DEA wanted “unredacted cannabis license(s), unredacted cannabis license application(s), and unredacted shipping manifest(s)” for three cannabis business entities and three people from January 2018 to January 2020. The targeted cannabis businesses and owners are not named in documents that have been publicly released in the case.
The state did reveal in a footnote in the most recent filing, however, that “the records sought by the subpoena in this matter pertained to distributor license applicants/holders.” That indicates that other licensed marijuana businesses in the state, such as cultivators, manufacturers, retailers and testing laboratories are not the immediate focus of the DEA investigation.
This legal dispute comes weeks after a DOJ whistleblower accused Attorney General William Barr of directing investigations into 10 cannabis firm mergers because of the top prosecutor’s alleged personal animus for the industry.
That said, a top department official said in a letter to Congress that those actions are better understood as helping to ensure consumers have affordable access to products in a competitive cannabis market—a curious position for the federal government to take.
Read California’s new response to the DEA marijuana business records lawsuit below: