Medical marijuana dispensaries in California are being targeted with federal shutdown warnings. Image: Flickr / Dank Depot / CC-BY

For the last 15 years, medical marijuana has been allowed by California law. Now, federal attorneys are threatening many dispensaries with legal action if they do not shut down. This is an about-face from previous federal policy of non-interference.

16 dispensaries threatened

There are thousands of medical marijuana dispensaries in California. In 2009, dispensaries outnumbered Starbucks stores in the state. California law governs these dispensaries, which are responsible for paying local, state and federal taxes. Federal attorneys appointed to California recently sent letters to 16 dispensaries and landlords, threatening prosecution if the dispensary doors were not shut within 45 days.

Which dispensaries were targeted

Thus far, a relatively small number of dispensaries and their landlords have been targeted. Some attorneys close to the issue have conjectured that the letters were sent to dispensaries for not operating in compliance with all California laws – operating for profit or serving more customers than they are legally allowed to. It also seems that the 16 San Diego dispensaries that received the letters are close to schools, parks, churches and playgrounds.

About-face on marijuana enforcement

For the first two years of the Obama administration, the official policy of the federal government was to not prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries operating in compliance with state laws. Federal law still states that marijuana is a Schedule I illegal substance, and considers the sale, transportation or possession of the drug a crime. In the last few months, however, dispensaries in Washington state and California have been threatened with prosecution if they do not shut down. Time will tell if the federal government will shut down all dispensaries in California.

Federal versus state law

In threatening prosecution, federal law enforcement officials cite the fact that federal law takes precedence over state law. There is some debate over this issue, but it is a generally accepted tenant of legal debate. The most often-cited examples of federal and state laws being in opposition are civil rights cases.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government can legislate against personal-use cultivation of marijuana, because it has “broader social and financial implications.”


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