Feds cracking down on California medical marijuana dispensaries

Federal prosecutors in California are threatening to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state, sending letters to warn landlords to stop sales of the drug within 45 days or face the possibility that their property will be seized and they will be sent to prison.

The stepped-up enforcement appears to be a major escalation in the Obama administration’s bid to rein in the explosive spread of medical marijuana outlets that was accelerated by the announcement that federal prosecutors would not target people using medical marijuana in states that allow it.

“It’s basically the federal bureaucracy doing what it has done for the last 15 years and just continuing to put its head in the sand and saying no on this,” said Dale Gieringer, the director of California NORML.

The four U.S. attorneys have scheduled a news conference for Friday morning in Sacramento to outline their plans to target marijuana cultivation and sales in California. Earlier this year, the prosecutors circulated an internal memo that indicated they would focus enforcement efforts on dispensaries and growers that dealt with more than 200 kilograms or a 1,000 plants a year. 

Landlords for some dispensaries have already received letters, including the owner of the building that houses the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Fairfax, Calif., the oldest dispensary in the state.  That letter notes that the dispensary is within a prohibited distance of a park, raising the possibility that prosecutors are taking aim at stores that fall within 1,000 feet of schools and parks. But letters received by dispensaries in San Diego make no mention of such distance prohibitions.

“There’s always been a different policy depending on where you are,” said Gieringer. “They’re going to try to clean up San Diego and just cause some random damage up here.”

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama said the federal government should not raid medical marijuana users and caregivers. Three months after Obama was inaugurated, his attorney general announced that it would be the administration's official policy. Although California was the first state to decriminalize marijuana for medical use in 1996, it remains a federal crime to possess or sell it.

Recently, the administration and some of its federal prosecutors have drawn strict limits on what they would tolerate. When Oakland and Berkeley began to make plans to allow industrial-scale cultivation, the U.S. attorney for the Bay Area made it that clear she would not allow it, leading those cities to shelve ambitious plans motivated by the desire for tighter regulatory control and increased tax revenues. 
The latest letters have baffled the state’s medical marijuana activists, who believe the president has broken his word. “Obama says, ‘Yes.’ The conservatives  say, ‘No.’ So they get together and huddle and they settle on no,” said William G. Panzer, an Oakland lawyer who helped draft the state’s medical marijuana initiative. “The Obama administration has been incredibly disappointing on this issue.”

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