Feds take on clinic in NoHo, elsewhere

October 07, 2011

Rick Orlov, Los Angeles Daily News

The federal government announced Friday it will crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries in California -- a campaign prompted, in part, by the explosive growth of clinics like one in North Hollywood that generated some $14 million in eight months.

Six people from NoHo Caregivers have been charged with trafficking. Also, criminal actions were filed against a warehouse facility in Orange County and stores in Lake Forest, Dana Point, Laguna Hills, Rancho Santa Margarita and in Riverside County and the Inland Empire.

The U.S. attorneys from Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Diego said they have sent letters to dozens of dispensaries ordering them to shut down in 45 days and warning that they and their landlords could face criminal charges and have their assets seized.

The actions represent the latest effort to enforce federal laws and challenge California's 15-year-old, voter-approved measure that allows the sale of marijuana as a medical treatment.

Authorities say California's Proposition 215 was never intended to give rise to massive moneymaking operations that they equate with drug trafficking. Instead, it was written to allow small collectives that did not make profits.

"It is important to note that for-profit, commercial marijuana operations are illegal not only under federal law, but also under California law," U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said at a news conference in Sacramento. "While California law permits collective cultivation of marijuana in limited circumstances, it does not allow commercial distribution through the store-front model we see across California."

In the North Hollywood case, federal officials said, investigators intercepted encrypted Blackberry messages detailing plans for the payment and distribution of marijuana. One email estimated the principals would each receive more than $194,000 a month.

The defendants in the case were identified as Paul A. Montoya, 37, of Arleta; Noah Josh Kleinman, 36, of Santa Clarita; Kathy Thabet, 25, of Los Angeles; James Stanley, 33, of Grass Valley, Bryant Satson, 43, of Pennsylvania, and Casey Wheat, 40, of Huntington Beach.

Efforts to contact the defendants or their attorneys were unsuccessful.

Special Assistant City Attorney Jane Usher said Los Angeles officials have been working with the federal government on the investigation.

"What we have found is that a disproportionate number of operations are commercial," Usher said, adding that city officials believe they could be connected to Mexican drug cartels.

"It's one of those things where we begin hearing the same story a half a dozen different times," Usher said. "No one will tell you where the product came from."

The city has had a difficult time developing regulations. The City Council approved a measure that would impose a cap of 70 dispensaries, with a grandfather clause including an additional 30.

However, the city's law was contested in court and no dispensaries have been through the process the city adopted.

A separate court case involving a Long Beach measure regulating the clinics has been thrown out, with a judge saying the federal government has pre-empted the city over marijuana laws.

Kris Hermes, spokesman for the pro-medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access, said the federal enforcement action came as a surprise.

"Clearly, there is heightened enforcement, but it is a continuation of similar attacks by the Obama administration over the last six months," Hermes said.

"We think it is an abuse of their discretion and how they are choosing to use taxpayers dollars."

Councilman Bill Rosen- dahl, who has been the most outspoken on the City Council about the issue, said he believes it is up to Congress to deal with the issue.

"It is time for our members in Congress to show some guts and step up and legalize marijuana," Rosendahl said. "This is absolutely ludicrous. At this time, the last thing we should be doing is going after marijuana.

"Alcohol is legal. Marijuana should be legal. We are wasting $70 billion a year on drug enforcement, and it is a war we will never win. We should legalize it, tax it and put this behind us. We spend more on incarceration than we do on education."

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