Feds announce Calif. pot dispensary crackdown

October 7, 2011 - 3:20 PM
Medical Marijuana

FILE - In this Tuesday Jan. 26, 2010 file photo, a pedestrian walks past a marijuana leaf neon sign advertising a medical marijuana provider along a street in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, Calif. Federal prosecutors have launched a crackdown on pot dispensaries in California, warning the stores that they must shut down in 45 days or face criminal charges and confiscation of their property even if they are operating legally under the state’s 15-year-old medical marijuana law. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Federal prosecutors announced an aggressive crackdown against California pot dispensaries Friday, vowing to shut down dozens of operations and saying that the worst offenders are using the cover of medical marijuana to act as storefront drug dealers.

Many of the drug trafficking ventures are using California's 15-year-old medical marijuana law to operate in plain sight, said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, the top federal law enforcement officer for the San Francisco Bay area.

"I understand there are people in California who believe marijuana stores should be allowed to exist, but I think we can all agree we don't need marijuana stores across the street from schools and Little League fields," she said.

Not all of the thousands of storefront pot dispensaries thought to be operating in the state are being targeted in the crackdown, which also involves new indictments and arrests of marijuana growers throughout the state over the past two weeks, said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wager, who represents the state's Central Valley.

Instead, federal officials are initially going after pot shops located close to schools, parks, sports fields and other places where there are a lot of children and what Wagner termed "significant commercial operations." He said that includes farmland where marijuana is being grown.

"California's marijuana industry supplies the nation," he said. "And huge amounts of money are flowing back in the other direction."

The officials declined to reveal how many dispensaries are subject to closure orders, saying only there were dozens in each their four districts.

The strategies they are using vary somewhat, with warning letters issued by the U.S. attorney in San Diego giving recipients 45 days to comply and 36 property owners in Los Angeles and the Central Coast given just two weeks to evict pot dispensaries or growers.

Haag said the move is not designed to clamp down on patients who grow their own marijuana for medical use. But dispensaries that were not part of the initial wave of warning letters "shouldn't take any comfort," she said. "They are illegal under federal law."

The move comes a little more than two months after the Obama administration toughened its stand on medical marijuana. For two years before that, federal officials had indicated they would not move aggressively against dispensaries in compliance with laws in the 16 states where pot is legal for people with doctors' recommendations.

The Department of Justice issued a policy memo to federal prosecutors in late June stating that marijuana dispensaries and licensed growers in states with medical marijuana laws could face prosecution for violating federal drug and money-laundering laws. The effort to shutter California dispensaries appeared to be the most far-reaching effort so far to put that guidance into action.