By Edwin Folven, 9/27/2012
Raids and lawsuits signal beginning of widespread effort
While the Los Angeles City Council continues to ponder its next move regarding medical marijuana dispensaries, federal authorities went on the offensive Tuesday, targeting 71 dispensaries in the Los Angeles area.
Federal authorities raided three dispensaries and filed asset forfeiture lawsuits against the owners of three others. Authorities also sent letters to 68 additional dispensaries warning them to close or face asset forfeiture proceedings.
The United States Attorney’s Office and the Drug Enforcement Agency conducted the operations in conjunction with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, said it was the beginning of a larger effort that will target dispensaries throughout the city. He added that federal authorities will be targeting the dispensaries in segments because of the sheer number of them in Los Angeles — estimated to be more than 750. U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr., who oversees the Central District of California, said illegal medical marijuana dispensaries are a major problem in the Los Angeles area.
“Over the past several years, we have seen an explosion of commercial marijuana stores, an explosion that is being driven by the massive profits associated with marijuana distribution,” Birotte said. “As [the] operations make clear, the sale and distribution of marijuana violates federal law, and we intend to enforce the law. Even those stores not targeted today should understand that they cannot continue to profit in violation of the law.”
The three dispensaries that were raided were in downtown Los Angeles and Silverlake. Search warrants were served at the Happy Ending Collective at 818 N. Spring St., which officials said was the largest dispensary in downtown Los Angeles; the Green Light Pharmacy at 522 S. Lorena St., which was found to be in violation of state and federal laws in an investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department earlier this year; and the Fountain of Wellbeing at 3835 Fountain Ave., which has been the subject of numerous complaints to the LAPD since 2011. Authorities did not disclose how many people were arrested or what was seized at the locations.
The asset forfeiture lawsuits were filed against The Together for Change Collective, House of Kush and ER Collective, all in Eagle Rock. The Together for Change Collective had previously been raided by the LAPD and had been the subject of a civil abatement action filed by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, but remained open. During a raid at the location in 2011, authorities seized more than 500 marijuana plants and more than $5,000. Officers seized nearly $15,000 in cash and a semi-automatic rifle during a subsequent raid at the owner’s residence.
The LAPD also served a search warrant at the ER Collective in 2010 and seized 11.4 kilograms of marijuana, 4.5 kilograms of hashish, liquid THC and $17,000 in cash. The City Attorney’s Office had also previously filed a civil lawsuit against the House of Kush. All of the dispensaries targeted Tuesday had been the subject of citizen complaints.
“As I’ve said before, in Los Angeles, some medical marijuana clinics have been taken over by illegal for-profit businesses that sell recreational marijuana to healthy young adults and attract crime,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said. “These stores are a source of criminal activity because of the product they sell and large amounts of cash they have on hand. The LAPD will continue to work with our federal partners to remove these threats from our communities.”
Federal law prohibits the sale and use of marijuana, and with the lawsuits announced Tuesday, authorities have now filed 19 asset forfeiture lawsuits against dispensaries in Southern California. Seven dispensaries have been closed permanently, and in some cases, consent decrees were reached requiring property owners to turn over all payments made by a marijuana store operator to the federal government. In all of the lawsuits that have reached a resolution, the property owners have been required to agree that they would no longer rent to people associated with medical marijuana or their property would be subject to an immediate forfeiture to the government.
The Los Angeles City Council has not yet decided how to move forward with its ban on medical marijuana dispensaries. A decision is expected next week. Proponents of medical marijuana gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on the ban. The city council can either drop its ban, call for a special election, or place the issue on the March ballot. Mrozek said federal authorities will continue targeting the dispensaries, regardless of what the Los Angeles City Council decides.
“Our enforcement actions are being taken under federal law, and we are not concerned with local ordinances,” Mrozek added. “I do anticipate other areas in L.A. to be targeted as our program continues.”