Nearly a year after federal prosecutors started targeting California medical marijuana shops, they took their fight to Los Angeles on Tuesday after city officials struggled to halt a proliferation of dispensaries.
The U.S. attorney's office sued three property owners that house pot collectives and sent warning letters to 68 others as they enforce a federal law that doesn't recognize a California initiative that legalized pot for medicinal use.
The move came as the city's own ban on pot shops is being challenged and could be overturned by voters if a referendum is placed on an upcoming ballot.
"As today's operations make clear, the sale and distribution of marijuana violates federal law, and we intend to enforce the law," U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said. "Even those stores not targeted today should understand that they cannot continue to profit in violation of the law."
California's four U.S. attorneys pledged last October to curb pot collectives they said were running afoul of the law by raking in huge sums of money and serving as fronts for drug traffickers. Proponents argue the dispensaries are protected by California law that allows medicinal use of marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.
David Welch, an attorney representing some of the Los Angeles collectives targeted by federal authorities, said he plans to file a lawsuit.
"I expected this to happen and we have planned for this contingency," Welch said. "The future is a lot less certain considering what seems to be a full press by the federal government."
Los Angeles passed an ordinance two years ago that was supposed to shutter hundreds of pot dispensaries while capping the number in operation at 70.
But a set of legal challenges against the city by collectives and the recent expiration of the ordinance due to a sundowner clause led to another surge of pot shops. City officials said more than 750 collectives have registered with the city and as many as 200 more could exist.
City officials have had a difficult time striking a balance providing safe and affordable access to pot for people who need it for medicinal purposes while addressing worries by neighborhood groups that streets were being overrun by dispensaries and pot users.
"The shops had an opportunity to work with the city on a path to legitimacy, but once again they chose short-term profits over long term safe access for legitimate patients,'' said Michael Larsen, president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council.
More than 175 California cities and 20 counties have banned retail pot shops, according to the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
The state Supreme Court is expected to address whether local governments can ban medical marijuana clinics, but a hearing hasn't been set by the high court.
Los Angeles could soon face a possible referendum on the latest ban approved by the City Council.
Council members must decide by next week whether to call a special election for the measure, repeal it themselves or put it on the March 2013 ballot.
About 375 pot stores and growing operations have already been targeted by federal authorities in the Central District of California, which stretches from Santa Barbara to San Bernardino counties.
Some officials in Los Angeles said they welcomed the federal government's response after repeatedly being challenged in court by medical marijuana advocates.
"The city has felt like it's been on its own trying to regulate hundreds of pot shops that don't want to be regulated," said William Carter, the city's chief deputy attorney. "It's like be careful what you asked for. If you don't want to be regulated by the locals, you will be regulated by the federal government."