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Feds Detail Planned Crackdown On California Medical Marijuana Industry

SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) - Federal prosecutors in California announced a full-court-press crackdown on the state's commercial marijuana industry Friday, saying they will not allow large-scale, for-profit enterprises in the name of medical marijuana.

The federal law enforcement effort was announced in a news conference in Sacramento by the four regional U.S. attorneys in the state, including Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for Northern California.  It came after the U.S. attorneys sent letters Wednesday and Thursday notifying at least 16 pot shops or their landlords that they are violating federal drug laws, even though medical marijuana is legal in California.

California's voter-approved Compassionate Use Act of 1996 allows seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana with a doctor's permission, but federal laws criminalizing marijuana make no exception for state laws.

The U.S. prosecutors said they will target large commercial enterprises and not individual patients.

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner of Sacramento said, "Large commercial operations cloak their money-making activities in the guise of helping sick people when they are in fact helping themselves."

Wagner said, "Our interest is in enforcing federal criminal law, not prosecuting seriously ill sick people and those who are caring for them."

The four U.S. attorneys said their enforcement actions will include civil forfeiture lawsuits against properties used in marijuana growing, warning letters to owners of property where marijuana is sold and criminal prosecutions.

Haag said her office will begin by concentrating on marijuana dispensaries near schools and parks.

"Marijuana stores operating in proximity to schools, parks and other areas where children are present send the wrong message to those in our society who are the most impressionable," Haag said.

"In addition, the huge profits generated by these stores, and the value of their inventory, present a danger that the stores will become a magnet for crime, which jeopardizes the safety of nearby children," she said.

Haag said that while Northern California enforcement will begin with stores near schools and parks, "we will almost certainly be taking action against others."

"None are immune from action by the federal government," Haag said.

Lynette Shaw, executive director of the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Fairfax, said the landlord of her dispensary received a "threatening and ominous" letter from Haag on Sept. 29.

"It's very scary for us. We don't know what's going to happen," Shaw said.

She said she believes her landlord doesn't want to evict the group, but that the landlord is consulting a lawyer about his options.

The dispensary is 50 yards from Peri Park, Shaw said. But she said she believes the organization's presence has "absolutely not" harmed children and has in fact helped because it has reduced the number of street dealers of marijuana.

The Marin Alliance received a use permit from Fairfax in 1997 and is the longest-standing medical marijuana dispensary in the state, Shaw said.

She said the permit now has 53 conditions and said the alliance has "abided by every rule."

Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, called the crackdown "a full frontal assault on medical cannabis."

ASA Chief Council Joseph Elford said, "Aggressive tactics like these are a completely inappropriate use of prosecutorial discretion by the Obama Administration."

Dale Gieringer, coordinator of the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said, "With the federal budget on empty, the economy in disarray, our prisons overflowing, and prohibition-related violence raging across the border, it's an outrageous misuse of federal resources to wage war on marijuana dispensaries."

Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole said in a statement from Washington, D.C., that the Justice Department "will not focus our investigative and prosecutorial resources on individual patients with serious illnesses like cancer or their immediate caregivers."

But "the actions taken today in California by our U.S. attorneys and their law enforcement partners are consistent with the department's commitment to enforcing existing federal laws," Cole said.

California was the first state in the nation to enact a medical marijuana law. Fifteen other states now have similar laws, according to NORML.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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