Pubdate: Mon, 10 Oct 2011
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2011 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: Donna Leinwand Leger


Federal prosecutors are cracking down on hundreds of California
medical-marijuana dispensaries that they say are fronts for drug dealing.

The aggressive and wide-ranging action targets commercial operations
that are growing and supplying large quantities of marijuana, and
dispensaries and stores located near schools and parks, prosecutors

"The California marijuana industry is not about providing medicine to
the sick," said Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney in San Diego. "It's a
pervasive for-profit industry that violates federal law."

Marijuana is legal for medical use in California, 15 other states and
Washington, D.C., but is subject to strict regulation. The state laws
conflict with federal law, which does not recognize any legal use for
marijuana. It is unclear whether similar crackdowns will follow in
other states.

"While we wouldn't speculate on what action we might or might not take
with respect to any particular matter, the department has made clear
that large-scale industrial marijuana cultivation centers are subject
to potential federal enforcement action," Justice Department
spokeswoman Jessica Smith said.

In June, a Justice Department memo to U.S. attorneys said dispensaries
and licensed growers could be prosecuted for violating federal drug
and money-laundering laws. A previous policy memo had indicated that
the Justice Department considered such prosecutions a low priority in
states with medical marijuana laws.

"The Obama administration, in what seems to be a concerted effort
across the state, is betraying the promise it originally made to leave
patients and their caregivers alone," said Stephen Gutwillig,
California director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "We think this is an
outrageous expression of bad faith, bad policy and bad politics."

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said the
crackdown is aimed at stores that "are selling marijuana at a profit,
which is also in violation of California law."

U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. in Los Angeles lodged criminal
drug-trafficking charges against a North Hollywood marijuana store
that allegedly made $15 million in profits in eight months.

In an indictment unsealed this week, prosecutors say six people who
operated the store distributed 600 to 700 pounds of marijuana a month
and shipped it illegally to two other states.

Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles also filed three civil lawsuits
involving two buildings and a strip mall. The lawsuit against an
Orange County strip mall alleges that eight of the 11 suites on the
second floor sold marijuana. Prosecutors warned owners and landlords
of 38 other stores that they had two weeks to stop marijuana sales or
face prosecution.

"For-profit, commercial marijuana operations are illegal not only
under federal law, but also under California law," Birotte said.

In San Diego, U.S. Attorney Duffy said her office sent hundreds of
letters to marijuana stores warning them to stop selling marijuana
within 45 days or face prosecution. She said the four U.S. attorneys
in California coordinated a federal enforcement action in response to
requests for help from local police.

Prosecutors also charged six people with selling marijuana to minors,
money laundering and other charges related to their operation of two
stores near colleges that sold high-grade marijuana and
marijuana-laden candy, cookies, bubble gum, ice cream and barbecue
sauce. Prosecutors say the stores catered to college and high school

Increased federal intervention is likely to unify marijuana growers
and sellers in a drive to change federal policy, National Cannabis
Industry Association spokeswoman Melissa Milam said.

"We're not going anywhere. We're mothers, we're patients, we're family
members of patients," she said. "We want to pay taxes, we want to be
able to make deposits at our bank, we want to be a business."

State Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat who has worked to safeguard and
regulate medical marijuana in California, said, "I don't understand
the politics of it, and certainly if we haven't learned anything over
the past century, it's that prohibition does not work."

Some cities have already sought to shut down dispensaries that they
say are violating zoning ordinances and breaking state law. The city
of San Diego says its zoning laws forbid medical marijuana
dispensaries, yet more than 160 operate there. Last month, the city
attorney sued to close 12 dispensaries operating within 600 feet of

"We have an untenable situation right now and a lot of policy
conflicts," City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said. "This situation cries
out for ultimate policy direction from the state and federal levels
that local communities can rely upon."

Contributing: The Associated Press
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