22 July 2013

Okemos businessman smoked by federal pot law

Story Originally Appeared in The Detroit News

Dennis Forsberg thought he was doing everything right. He had filed all the necessary paperwork and cleared his business plan with attorneys, local government officials and law enforcement. He created new companies and got a federal tax ID number. He wasn’t trying to hide anything. Yet in the end, he still got burned.

On Tuesday, the 59-year-old Okemos businessman is headed to federal prison in North Carolina for three years because he found himself in the dangerous intersection between state and federal marijuana laws. His son, Lance, has already started serving a three-year sentence in West Virginia.

“We worked so hard to be transparent,” Forsberg says. “But it worked against us.”

Forsberg’s error was leasing some of the buildings owned by the family real estate company to licensed growers, or caregivers, under Michigan’s medical marijuana law. Now instead of enjoying retirement and spoiling grandchildren, the father of four will spend years away from his family and life — even though everything he did was legal under state law. He’s outraged.

“The crime and punishment don’t make sense,” Forsberg says. “I had a great track record, and they do this to good people who think they are under the law.”

Forsberg’s wife, JoAnn, faces a lonely three years without her husband of nearly 40 years and her son. Plus, the couple still have two children in college, and finances will be tight with Forsberg behind bars. “We got caught in a trap between state and federal law,” she says.

The case highlights the tension between state and federal drug law. Michigan is one of 18 states, in addition to Washington, D.C., that have passed medical marijuana laws. And recently, Colorado and Washington state legalized the recreational use of marijuana. No matter what states do, however, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. The drug is classified as a Schedule I substance, which places marijuana on par with heroin and ecstasy.

Forsberg justifiably feels betrayed by the state — and country — he loves, and he wants to get the word out to others who may think about getting involved in medical marijuana. He says the state didn’t communicate the huge risks involved. “We just want to help other families,” he says.

The Obama administration has said it doesn’t want the Justice Department to go after people who are abiding by state medical marijuana laws. That leaves Forsberg scratching his head. Because when federal agents stormed his property, it definitely seemed like he was a target. Matthew Abel, an attorney for Cannabis Counsel in Detroit and executive director of Michigan’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says both state and federal marijuana laws need adjusting. Efforts under way in both the state Legislature and Congress could help, and they deserve lawmakers’ support.

“It’s very unfair that some are prosecuted and some are not,” Abel says.

The Forsberg family feels that unfairness acutely. The economic downtown of 2008 had hit the business hard. Real estate tanked, so when Forsberg started getting calls in early 2010 about leasing some space for growing medical marijuana, he decided he might as well. It was legal after all in Michigan. But by November of that year, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided his buildings and Forsberg had 13 federal indictments against him.

“It was scary, terrifying,” he says. “I was just devastated.”

Court records from May show that U.S. District Judge Janet Neff, with the Western District of Michigan, felt some sympathy. “This was certainly an atypical drug case,” she said. Neff also noted the attempts to comply with state law and acknowledged the situation was a “perfect storm for all of you.”

That’s not much consolation for Forsberg, who sees his days as a free man dwindling.

Forsberg, soft-spoken and fatherly, says he’s never had any previous run-ins with the law, so this sentence came as harsh wake-up call. He was treated like a drug kingpin, rather than the law-abiding citizen he tried to be. Forsberg and his wife describe themselves as proud Americans, Christians, volunteers and hard-working business owners. Felon isn’t something they wanted to add to that list.

“Our family has been devastated,” Forsberg says. “As a father, it’s like tearing some of my heart out.”

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