Feds Crack Down on Pot Shops in Orange County

January 18, 2012

Jason Kandel, NBC-TV

Hoping to hit illicit marijuana sellers in the pocketbook, federal prosecutors this week filed four asset forfeiture lawsuits against the owners of marijuana stores in Orange County.

The complaints filed Wednesday allege that the owner of a building in Costa Mesa knowingly ran marijuana stores and had been cited numerous times, said Thom Mrozek of the U.S. Attorney's Office.

In addition to the asset forfeiture actions, federal authorities issued warning letters this week to the operators of nearly three dozen businesses in Costa Mesa and a now-shuttered shop in Newport Beach, Mrozek said.

The letters warned operators that the stores were in violation of federal law and they have 15 days to shut down or face up to $1,000 fines a day until they do.

“The federal government is sending a message -- this activity is illegal in all circumstances under federal law,” Mrozek said. “Federal law says that the cultivation, trafficking and possession of marijuana is illegal.”

The crackdown is part of a coordinated effort announced in October by California’s four United States Attorneys. So far, authorities have targeted illicit shops in 18 cities across Southern California, Mrozek said. Crackdowns took place in Riverside County just after the start of the new year.

Advocates for medical marijuana are pushing back.

Americans For Safe Access filed a lawsuit in November -- and four other suits followed -- that call for an end to the crackdowns. Medical marijuana advocates are also lobbying the White House to get the government to reconcile its policy with its practices.

“We filed a lawsuit to try and stop the federal government from taking an aggressive stance against local and state laws,” said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for the Americans For Safe Access, based in Oakland. “The federal government is obstructing local governments.”

One of the businesses targeted this week, American Collective, was run by a man with a 2003 conviction in Orange County Superior Court for marijuana sales, Mrozek said.

Search warrants executed Tuesday at this site and another location led to two marijuana growing operations with more than 500 marijuana plants apiece.

The operator of Otherside Farms allegedly told the city's code enforcement officials that he intended to ”make so much money” that he would donate up to $500,000 annually to help the city stave off layoffs of public employees, Mrozek said.

This week’s crackdown comes on the heels of a sweep last week in unincorporated Covina when federal prosecutors filed an asset forfeiture lawsuit against the building that houses Alternative Medicinal Cannabis Collective. The location was also the subject of a Los Angeles County lawsuit.

The enforcement comes after President Barack Obama in October announced a crackdown on large-scale marijuana operators in the country who flout state laws by falsely claiming millions of dollars in profits.

Cities, including Los Angeles, have been grappling with how to regulate pot shops.

The California Supreme Court this week decided to take up whether and how local governments can regulate medical marijuana shops. In 1996, California voters approved of medical marijuana use.

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