October 7, 2011
Federal prosecutors, under the direction of the Obama administration are sending warning letters to California's medical marijuana dispensaries, ordering them to close within 45 days of receiving the letters or face civil or criminal action.
The move comes less than two years after the Justice Department announced it would not prosecute people who distribute medical marijuana to registered patients in states where medical marijuana had been legalized.
A number of dispensaries and collectives in San Francisco, San Diego and other cities have already received letters, and many more statewide will receive them in the coming weeks.
The U.S. attorneys for California's four federal districts held a joint press conference this morning to discuss their role in the cannabis crackdown. While they emphasized their intention to more aggressively target illegal grow operations by drug traffickers, they also made clear their focus on enforcement actions against medical marijuana dispensaries and "retail stores" and their operators.
"Many operating marijuana stores are using cover of medical marijuana to make huge amounts of money," said Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for California's Northern District. "The intention of California's laws was to allow marijuana to be supplied to sick people on a nonprofit basis, but those laws have been hijacked by people looking to make a profit."
André Birotte Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the Central District, said his office has already filed dozens of civil forfeiture actions and sent letters to landlords warning them that unless they take steps to "remedy" their businesses (read: stop selling pot), they will be shut down.
An employee at Herbal Cruz dispensary in Santa Cruz who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the business hasn't received notifications or warnings from the feds, but she knew others within city limits had. It's a tangible representation of the fractious back-and-forth between California's 15-year-old law legalizing medical marijuana and the federal government's ban on it.
Monterey County has no medical marijuana dispensaries. The cities of Marina, Pacific Grove, Salinas, Sand City, and Seaside have passed ordinances banning dispensaries in recent years. Most recently, the city of Monterey voted 3-2 July 28 to permanently ban medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits.
Kris Hermes, a spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access, had harsh words for the Obama administration. "By shutting down dispensaries, the Obama Administration is not only pushing legal patients into the illicit market, it's also wasting taxpayer dollars at a time of fiscal crisis," Hermes said in a statement Friday.
For more on the medical marijuana battle in Monterey County, see the Weekly's June 16 cover story, "A Hazy Future."