Medical marijuana collectives throughout Southern California, including Riverside County, must shut down within 45 days or face civil and/or criminal prosecution, federal prosecutors announced today.
The warning is part of a new federal crackdown on the state's medical marijuana industry, which includes huge commercial grow operations, intricate distribution systems and hundreds of retail stores in the Southland and across the state -- even though the federal Controlled Substances Act prohibits the sale and distribution of cannabis.
"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. "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.''
At a news briefing/teleconference attended by the state's four U.S. attorneys in Sacramento, Birotte said warning letters had gone out to dozens of medical marijuana retail store operators across the state. The typical medical marijuana dispensary sells pot solely for the purpose of recreational use, he said. "That is not what California voters intended.''
After his inauguration, President Barack Obama said the federal government would not prosecute medical marijuana users and caregivers. In 1996, California was the first state to decriminalize marijuana for medical use, although it has remained a federal crime to possess or sell it. Medical marijuana advocates say the Department of Justice's newly announced stance is "harmful and unnecessary'' to patients who use the drug as part of their treatment regimen.
"Aggressive tactics like these are a completely inappropriate use of prosecutorial discretion by the Obama administration,'' said Joe Elford, a lawyer with Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group. "President Obama must answer for his contradictory policy.''
Laura E. Duffy, the U.S. Attorney in San Diego, said it should be noted that illegal marijuana grow operations often found flourishing on federal land create "significant negative consequences'' and result in "a very serious public safety issue.''
Federal prosecutors said warning letters had been sent to the operators and landlords of dozens of marijuana dispensaries in the Southland and elsewhere, and forfeiture actions were filed against properties where owners allow pot stores to operate. Those receiving letters were warned that the stores are in violation of federal law and that they have less than two months to "take the necessary steps to discontinue the sale and/or distribution of marijuana.''
Birotte said all known marijuana stores in the following areas were notified: -- Orange County: the cities of Lake Forest, Dana Point, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, and Rancho Santa Margarita; -- Los Angeles County: cities of Pomona and Claremont; -- Riverside County: the cities of Murrieta, Wildomar, and Temecula; and -- San Bernardino County: Upland, Montclair and Chino.
All the unicorporated areas are also affected.
The letters note that the operation of a marijuana store "may result in criminal prosecution, imprisonment, fines and forfeiture of assets, including the real property on which the dispensary is operating and any money you receive (or have received) from the dispensary operator.''