Lake Forest's battle to shut down local medical marijuana stores got a big boost Friday when the federal government announced a crackdown on pot shops throughout California.
Marijuana dispensaries around the state must close their doors within 45 days or face federal prosecution, according to notices being sent by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The letters note that 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."
Federal prosecutors announced the local crackdown Friday as part of a larger operation that began earlier this week in San Diego, targeting the state's medical marijuana industry.
The offensive aims to shutter the state's huge commercial grow operations, intricate distribution systems and hundreds of retail stores because they violate the federal Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits the sale and distribution of cannabis.
Orange County Part of Larger Enforcement
At a Sacramento news briefing, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said warning letters had gone out to dozens of medical marijuana retail store operators statewide.
In Orange County, the notifications targeted shops in Dana Point, Lake Forest, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel and Rancho Santa Margarita. Stores in the counties of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino were also notified.
"It is important to note that for-profit, commercial marijuana operations are illegal not only under federal law, but also under California law," Birotte said. "While California law permits collective cultivation of marijuana in limited circumstances, it does not allow commercial distribution through the storefront model we see across California."
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 latest maneuver 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 pro-medical marijuana group. "President Obama must answer for his contradictory policy."
The DOJ went a step further at three properties, including one in Lake Forest, where prosecutors believe landlords were "well aware of the marijuana operations in the their properties," Birotte wrote in a letter to Scott Smith, Lake Forest's city attorney, detailing the department's activities.
Civil complaints have been filed in federal court against the properties, seeking their forfeiture, as well as the seizure of bank accounts containing rent money from the stores.
City Officials Applaud Federal Actions
Lake Forest city officials issued a statement Friday expressing strong support for the DOJ crackdown.
“I don’t believe there is another community in the nation that has invested the time and resources to fight the battle against illegal marijuana stores like the City of Lake Forest,” said Mayor Peter Herzog. “The City is greatly appreciative of the United States Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr.’s assistance in this serious problem.”
Birotte's letter to the city thanked Lake Forest for its efforts and pledged assistance, responding directly to a May plea from the city for support in its "lengthy and expensive" legal battle.
Since 2009, Lake Forest has sued to close down shops that violate the city's municipal code, which prohibits any business that violates state or federal law, and prohibits land uses not explicitly allowed in the municipal code.
Still, about 12 marijuana shops remain in business.
In the past three years, there have been 33 marijuana businesses operating in various commercial locations in Lake Forest. In some cases, the landlords cooperated with the city to close the businesses without litigation. In other cases, Lake Forest sued in an effort to chase the business out of town.
"Cities all over California are struggling to manage the exploding number of marijuana businesses, which attract violent crime, assaults, burglaries, loitering, increased traffic, noise and illegal use of marijuana at or near the facilities," said Jeffrey Dunn, Lake Forest’s litigation attorney, in the city's Friday statement.
"We refuse to compromise the City’s quality of life by allowing these illegal drug outlets to continue," Herzog said.
--City News Service contributed to this report.