On December 27, 2018, the Northern District of California dismissed a civil RICO claim brought against the owners and operators of a Sonoma County cannabis growing operation and the operation’s landlord. See Bokaie v. Green Earth Coffee LLC, 3:18-cv-05244-JST, 2018 WL 6813212 (N.D. Calif. Dec. 27, 2018). The lawsuit was filed by neighbors who alleged that the operation’s “skunk-like stench” interfered with the enjoyment of their property and drove down their property values. The Bokaie court found that such alleged harms did not constitute a “RICO injury,” and thus dismissed plaintiffs’ claim (albeit without prejudice, allowing 30 days to amend).
The Bokaie case is part of a growing trend of RICO lawsuits filed in legalized states—to date, roughly a dozen have been filed in California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Oregon—that seek to exploit the tension between state law and the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). RICO defines “racketeering activity” to include CSA violations, and a civil lawsuit can proceed upon allegations that an enterprise’s pattern of racketeering activity caused damage to the plaintiffs’ business or property. 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961(1), 1962(c), 1964(c). RICO’s civil remedy provision awards prevailing plaintiffs triple damages and attorneys’ fees, id. § 1964(c), thus giving “not in my backyard” plaintiffs and their attorneys a powerful tool against their neighbors. By alleging that the smell of cannabis interferes with the enjoyment of their property and drives down their property value, plaintiffs in these cases are effectively elevating common law nuisance claims into federal RICO lawsuits.