US launches California medical marijuana crackdown

DON THOMPSON - Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) — U.S. prosecutors announced an aggressive crackdown against California marijuana dispensaries Friday, saying the worst offenders are using the cover of medical marijuana to act as drug dealers.

The move comes soon after the Obama administration toughened its stand on medical marijuana. For two years before that, U.S. officials had indicated they would not move aggressively against legal dispensaries in the 16 states where marijuana is legal for people with doctors' recommendations.

The U.S. Department of Justice in July issued a memo to federal prosecutors saying dispensaries and licensed growers in states with medical marijuana laws could face prosecution for violating federal drug and money-laundering laws. The California crackdown appears to be the most far-reaching effort so far.

Many of the drug trafficking ventures are using California's 15-year-old medical marijuana law to operate in plain sight, said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, the top federal law enforcement officer for the San Francisco Bay area.

"I understand there are people in California who believe marijuana stores should be allowed to exist, but I think we can all agree we don't need marijuana stores across the street from schools and Little League fields," she said, referring to sports fields.

Authorities promised to shut down dozens of operations but declined to say how many dispensaries are subject to closure orders.

The crackdown also involves new indictments and arrests of marijuana growers throughout the state over the past two weeks, said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wager.

Not all of the thousands of storefront marijuana dispensaries thought to be operating in the state are being targeted. Instead, officials are initially going after shops located close to schools, parks and other places where there are a lot of children, as well as what Wagner called "significant commercial operations."

He said that includes farmland where marijuana is grown.

"California's marijuana industry supplies the nation," he said. "And huge amounts of money are flowing back in the other direction."

Haag said the move is not designed to crack down on patients who grow their own marijuana for medical use.