Federal prosecutors announced an aggressive crackdown against California pot dispensaries Friday, vowing to shut down dozens of operations and saying that the worst offenders are using the cover of medical marijuana to act as storefront drug dealers.
Some of the 180 medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego are on notice - shut down in 45 days or face prosecution.
U.S Attorney for San Diego Laura Duffy appeared with her counterparts from the Central, Eastern and Northern Districts of California in an unprecedented show of force, saying they will initially go after those dispensaries that operate near where children gather or those with "significant commercial operations."
One case involves Club One Collective in San Marcos and Extreme Holistic Care in Wildomar and marijuana grow sites located in Vista, Oceanside, Temecula, Lake Elsinore, Winchester and Menifee.
A 77-count indictment was unsealed Sept 30 charging six defendants including James Travis Brand, 28, of Vista, Amanda Theresa Ventura, 28, of Escondido and Hal Delno Pilotte, 57, of Oceanside.
Federal prosecutors claim the stores, located near colleges and schools, sold marijuana to hundreds of people under the age of 21.
The marijuana stores sold high-grade marijuana under such labels as “sky walker,” “black skunk,” “purple haze” and “night train,” and marijuana-laden junk food such as candy, cookies, brownies, bubble gum, ice cream, barbeque sauce, and soft drinks prosecutors said.
"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," said U.S. Attorney for San Francisco Melinda Haag.
Federal prosecutors allege Hohn, Drake and Moore put up security cameras and brought in dogs as part of their plan to grow more than 200 marijuana plants. Along with firearms and ammunition, agents found a book on incendiary devices and a book on how to grow marijuana, prosecutors said.
The defendants in each case face up to 40 years behind bars and a $5 million fine if convicted.
The officials declined to reveal how many dispensaries are subject to closure orders, saying only there were dozens in each of their four districts.
They said this crackdown is not aimed at those patients who grow their own marijuana for medical use.
Dispensaries that were not part of the initial wave of warning letters "shouldn't take any comfort," Haag said. "They are illegal under federal law."
While some San Diego dispensaries have already shut their doors, others are vowing to fight.
“This is going to result in a showdown between the state of California and the Department of Justice and it is our position we have the rights to decide what is medicine if we want to,” said attorney Lance Rogers.
The move comes a little more than two months after the Obama administration toughened its stand on medical marijuana. For two years before that, federal officials had indicated they would not move aggressively against dispensaries in compliance with laws in the 16 states where pot is legal for people with doctors' recommendations.
The Department of Justice issued a policy memo to federal prosecutors in late June stating that marijuana dispensaries and licensed growers in states with medical marijuana laws could face prosecution for violating federal drug and money-laundering laws. The effort to shutter California dispensaries appeared to be the most far-reaching effort so far to put that guidance into action.