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Marijuana Shops Closing Amid Federal Crackdown

Local and federal authorities have both been cracking down on San Diego medical marijuana dispensaries in recent weeks. KPBS Metro Reporter Katie Orr looks at what impact the federal action is likely to have.

Marijuana Shops Closing Amid Federal Crackdown

— The San Diego Medical marijuana industry is in upheaval after the federal government announced a crackdown on California dispensaries.

Moni Osborne is the director of the SDTMC Dispensary, one of about 180 that had been operating in the city. Osborne has tried to diversify her business on Morena Blvd. by selling teas and offering other alternative health treatments. But her landlord received a letter from the U.S. Attorney telling him to get rid of the dispensaries on his property or face the risk of losing that property. He told Osborne she has to go.

"I feel heartbroken for my patients," Osborne said. "We’ve been able to establish free chiropractic. We’ve been able to establish free yoga and free acupuncture for people who otherwise would never have had an opportunity to experience those healing modalities. So I’m very saddened and confused by the nature of the federal involvement."

Osborne said she only got into the medical marijuana business after President Barack Obama said he wouldn’t use federal resources to go after the industry.

Under California law, patients and caregivers who collectively cultivate marijuana for medical use won’t be subject to arrest. But what qualifies as a collective is up for debate.

Attorney Jessica McElfresh represents the Patient Care Associate, a medical marijuana advocacy group. The group believes San Diego’s dispensaries are operating within the boundaries of the law. McElfresh said the group is trying to reach out to lawmakers to get the feds to ease up. And she said they’re reaching out to landlords too.

"Many of the landlords have been willing to listen and to reach out and to try to get the policy changed back. And for the moment that’s the posture we’re in," she said. "We believe that we’re going to be able to turn this back with a significant public outcry. And, you can’t reach through the mail and pull the letter back out, but basically get the policy changed."

But the medical marijuana industry may be in for a tough fight. Laura Duffy is the U.S. Attorney for California’s Southern District. She said things have veered widely from the original intent of California’s medical marijuana law.

"This industry is becoming more along the lines of drug trafficking, in large part, than it is about providing medicine to the sick," Duffy said.

According to Duffy, a core mission of the Department of Justice is to go after drug traffickers. She said the government will not pursue truly sick patients who grow marijuana in their homes. But she said California’s storefront pot shops are a clear violation of the law and most don’t actually fit the definition of a collective.

"Dispensaries, they’re often called, they’re marijuana stores that are open storefronts. People can come in, they can receive marijuana in exchange for, you call it a donation, a payment, whatever you want to call it. That’s something different from a collective," she said. "And those marijuana stores are not authorized under state law."

Duffy said her office will continue to send out letters like this one to dispensaries that she believes violate state law.

But Alex Kreit said we’ve seen this kind of federal action before and it was largely unsuccessful. He’s a professor at Thomas Jefferson Law School and the former chair of San Diego’s Medical Marijuana Task Force. He said the Bush administration vigorously went after dispensaries.

"Their position was this is illegal for any purpose. They were raiding people, prosecuting people all over the state," he said. "And, by the time Bush left office, there were, it appears, between 500 and 1,000 dispensaries openly operating in California. Many, many more than when Bush came into office."

Kreit said he doesn’t believe this latest crackdown will have much impact either.

But that may be little comfort to Moni Osborne. She said she’ll have to lay off four full time employees and say goodbye to 2,000 patients. And she now has less than 45 days to close up shop.

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