Showdown in California over medical marijuana, as feds crack down

Four US Attorneys in California said Friday they are targeting growers and distributors who use California's medical marijuana law as a cover to engage in illegal drug trafficking.

Max Whittaker/Reuters
US Attorney Laura Duffy displays a photo of edible marijuana products for sale while announcing law enforcement action against California's marijuana industry in Sacramento, Friday. The US Attorneys in California are targeting commercial marijuana operations through civil forfeiture lawsuits against property owners and criminal arrests of commercial marijuana activities.

Reefer wars are reigniting in California, and the US Justice Department is leading the charge.

Four US Attorneys based in California said Friday they will step up prosecution of marijuana growers and pot dispensaries suspected of drug trafficking outside the confines of the state's medical marijuana law.

Production and sale of marijuana are federal crimes, but the Obama administration said two years ago that it would not go after patients with marijuana prescriptions or dispensaries in states where marijuana is legal for medicinal use. California and 15 other states have such laws.

The US prosecutors, though, say the marijuana industry in California has flourished far beyond that special consideration and is engaged in illicit activities, including sales across state lines. They call it an industrial-scale operation that uses California's medical marijuana law as a cover for distributing and selling pot to more than just people with medical need.

At a press conference Friday at the federal courthouse in Sacramento, four US Attorneys outlined a new enforcement effort that will take effect statewide. The three key components are:

• Pursue civil lawsuits to seize property involved in drug trafficking.

• Send warning letters to owners and lienholders of properties where illegal marijuana sales are suspected of taking place.

• Target commercial marijuana activities by filing criminal charges. In the past two weeks, such cases have been filed in US district courts in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, and Fresno.

"The California marijuana industry is not about providing medicine to the sick. It's a pervasive for-profit industry that violates federal law," said Laura Duffy, US Attorney for the Southern District of California, in a statement. "In addition to damaging our environment, this industry is creating significant negative consequences, in California and throughout the nation. As the No. 1 marijuana-producing state in the country, California is exporting not just marijuana but all the serious repercussions that come with it, including significant public safety issues and perhaps irreparable harm to our youth."

Last November, California voters considered a ballot proposition that would have legalized growing and possessing marijuana for an individual's personal use. After a battle that saw public opinion see-saw, voters rejected the measure. But the fight energized those on the side of decriminalizing marijuana, who now see the Justice Department enforcement effort as backpedaling on the administration's earlier stance.

“The administration seems to think that by shutting down licensed and regulated dispensaries in California it will curtail illicit marijuana production and distribution, but nothing could be further from the truth,” said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, in an e-mail. “This will only serve to push more patients into the underground market, and remove the incentives of legality and protection from arrest that ensured that most of the medical marijuana industry followed the strictest of guidelines.”

In the past month, about 16 California dispensaries have received letters from federal prosecutors warning them to stop sales within 45 days or risk property seizure and criminal charges.

"The department has maintained that we will not focus our investigative and prosecutorial resources on individual patients with serious illnesses ... or their immediate caregivers," said deputy US Attorney James Cole, in a statement. "However, US Attorneys continue to have the authority to prosecute significant violations" of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Groups that advocate legalization or medical marijuana laws have long held that law enforcement agencies should concentrate their resources on violent crime rather than on shuttering what they say are legitimate businesses and patient care.

"Why these stepped-up efforts now?" asks Paul Armentano, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “The answer is self-evident. The intention of these and other recent, well-publicized threats by the Obama administration is to stifle the development of a viable legal cannabis distribution industry, even in states that have enacted legislation to allow for such an industry."

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