U.S. Attorneys in California Set Crackdown on Marijuana
October 06, 2011
Jennifer Medina, New York Times
Federal officials on Friday warned dozens of marijuana dispensaries throughout California to shut down or face civil and criminal action as part of a major crackdown on the state’s growing medical marijuana industry.
The four United States attorneys in California said that they would move against landlords who rent space to the storefront operators of medical marijuana dispensaries, whom prosecutors suspect of using the law to cover large-scale for-profit drug sales. The announcement, at a news conference in Sacramento, highlights the tension between the federal government and the state, which began making medical marijuana legal in 1996, the first to do so. Now, 15 other states have similar laws allowing medical marijuana.
But federal prosecutors said that in California, many people had simply used the law as a cover for large-scale drug operations, with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of marijuana being sent across state lines from here. Officials said they would also concentrate on properties used to grow marijuana, particularly in the agriculturally rich central part of the state.
“This is not what the California voters intended or authorized,” said André Birotte Jr., the United States attorney in Los Angeles. “It is illegal under California law.”
The Obama administration said in October 2009 that federal prosecutors would not prosecute individual patients who used marijuana or the operators that distributed it for medical reasons in a state where it had been legalized. “It’s a tremendous shift for them to say they are going to do this,” said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates the legalization of the drug for medical and nonmedical use. “But for now it is still threats. Until we start seeing the shutdowns themselves, it’s hard to know what it means more than rhetoric.”
Mr. Birotte said that the storefronts in many cities were more like Wal-Mart or Costco than medical dispensaries. To illustrate the problem, he pointed to an Orange County building with eight stores selling marijuana.
“Some will allow you to consume the marijuana right there and then presumably leave and drive,” said Melinda Haag, the United States attorney in San Francisco. She said that several dispensaries accepted only cash and placed A.T.M.’s in the stores. “There’s no wonder that there are guards here — where there is marijuana, there is a lot of money.”
Advocates for medical marijuana say that the crackdown is unlikely to have any impact on the amount of marijuana coming through the state but will instead push people who have a legitimate need into the underground market.
“They are really pushing people into the illicit market,” said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. “This is federal interference for thousands of patients in the state.”
A laissez-faire approach to marijuana permeates much of the state. In many cities, it is not unusual to see dispensaries advertising late-night specials and bulk packages of marijuana-laced brownies and other food products. The West Coast Cannabis Expo, a three-day event billed partly as a “job fair to promote employment opportunities in the medical marijuana industry,” began in San Francisco on Friday.
Officials said that each of the four regions would handle the crackdown slightly differently. In the central district, which includes Los Angeles, prosecutors intend to concentrate on cities where residents and officials have expressed vocal opposition to the dispensaries. Ms. Haag said that in Northern California, the efforts will center on areas near schools and parks, but added that “we will almost certainly be taking action against others.”
Federal prosecutors also said Friday that as part of the crackdown, they had charged six people in a suspected marijuana trafficking ring based in North Hollywood that made $15 million in eight months. But officials repeatedly said that they would not focus on individual patients.
“Large commercial operations cloak their money-making activities in the guise of helping sick people when they are in fact helping themselves,” said Benjamin B. Wagner, the United States attorney in Sacramento. “Our interest is in enforcing federal criminal law, not prosecuting seriously ill sick people and those who are caring for them.”