Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, October 8, 2011

California’s federal prosecutors announced a campaign Friday to shut down scores of marijuana dispensaries, which they described as profit-making criminal enterprises masquerading as suppliers of medicine.

The announcement at a Sacramento news conference angered medical marijuana advocates, who said President Obama had reneged on his promise to let states set their own policies on therapeutic use of the drug. But prosecutors insisted they weren’t going after patients and their caregivers.

“People are using the cover of medical marijuana to make extraordinary amounts of money,” said San Francisco’s U.S. attorney, Melinda Haag, speaking alongside her counterparts from Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The prosecutors said dispensaries are violating California law – which allows medical marijuana distribution only by nonprofit organizations – as well as federal law that bans all use of the drug.
Targeted stores

Haag, whose district runs from Monterey County to the North Coast, said she is initially targeting a limited number of marijuana stores located near schools, playgrounds or Little League fields. A Sept. 28 letter, released by medical marijuana advocacy groups, advises the owner of an unidentified Mission District dispensary to shut down within 45 days or face possible criminal charges and loss of the property.

Haag declined to say how many outlets received the letters, but added, “We will almost certainly be taking action against others. None are immune from action by the federal government.”

The other three prosecutors said they had each sent letters to dozens of marijuana retailers in their districts notifying them that they were violating federal law and subject to property forfeiture and possible prosecution.

“This is not an idle threat,” said San Diego’s U.S. attorney, Laura Duffy. “This is our commitment to the concerned citizens and parents of our community. … So-called medical marijuana has become a law enforcement nightmare.”

Advocates for medical marijuana – first legalized by California voters in 1996, and later by 15 other states and Washington, D.C. – cited Obama’s campaign promise that he would let states chart their own course on the issue. His Justice Department issued guidelines in October 2009 discouraging federal prosecutors from going after people who were complying with state laws.

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