Feds to announce Calif. pot dispensary crackdown

Federal prosecutors in California are
cracking down on some of the state's medical marijuana dispensaries,
signaling an escalation of the ongoing conflict between the U.S.
government and the nation's burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

The four U.S. attorneys in
California, the first state to pass a law legalizing marijuana use for
patients with doctors' recommendations, have scheduled a joint news
conference Friday where they plan to “outline actions targeting the
sale, distribution and cultivation of marijuana.”

Their offices refused to
provide details in advance what moves the officials are taking or how
many of the state's hundreds of storefront pot shops would be affected.
But at least 16 pot shops or their landlords received letters this week
warning face they would face criminal charges and confiscation of their
property if the dispensaries do not shut down in 45 days.

The Associated Press
obtained copies of the letters that a prosecutor sent to at least 12 San
Diego dispensaries. They state that federal law “takes precedence over
state law and applies regardless of the particular uses for which a
dispensary is selling and distributing marijuana.”

“Under United States law, a
dispensary's operations involving sales and distribution of marijuana
are illegal and subject to criminal prosecution and civil enforcement
actions,” according to the letters signed by U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy
in San Diego. “Real and personal property involved in such operations
are subject to seizure by and forfeiture to the United States …
regardless of the purported purpose of the dispensary.”

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.

Greg Anton, a lawyer who
represents dispensary Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, said its
landlord received an “extremely threatening” letter Wednesday invoking a
federal law that imposes additional penalties for selling drugs within
1,000 feet of schools, parks and playgrounds.

The landlord was ordered to
evict the 14-year-old pot club or risk imprisonment, plus forfeiture of
the property and all the rent he has collected while the dispensary has
been in business, Anton said.

Kris Hermes, a spokesman
for the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said
the warnings are part of what appears to be an attempt by the Obama
administration to curb medical marijuana on multiple fronts and through
multiple agencies. A series of dispensary raids in Montana, for example,
involved agents from not only the FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency,
but the Internal Revenue Service and Environmental Protection Agency.

Going after property owners
is not a new tactic though, Hermes said. Five years ago, the Department
of Justice under President George W. Bush made similar threats to about
300 Los Angeles-area landlords who were renting space to medical
marijuana outlets, some of whom were eventually evicted or closed their
doors voluntarily, he said.

“It did have an impact.
However, the federal government never acted on its threats, never
prosecuted anybody, never even went to court to begin prosecutions,”
Hermes said. “By and large, they were empty threats, but they relied on
them and the cost of postage to shut down as many facilities as they
could without having to engage in criminal enforcement activity.”

The San Diego medical
marijuana outlets put on notice were the same dozen that city officials
sued last month for operating illegally, after activists there
threatened to force an election on a zoning plan adopted to regulate the
city's fast-growing medical marijuana industry, City Attorney Jan
Goldsmith said. A judge on Wednesday ordered nine of the targeted shops
to close, while the other three shut down voluntarily, Goldsmith said.

Duffy, the U.S. attorney
for far Southern California, planned to issue warning letters to
property owners and all of the 180 or so dispensaries that have
proliferated in San Diego in the absence of compromise regulations,
according to Goldsmith.

“The real power is with the
federal government,” he said. “They have the asset forfeiture, and that
means either the federal government will own a lot of property or these
landlords will evict a lot of dispensaries.”

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