The federal government's vow to clamp down on medical marijuana this month comes as a boon to Fresno County authorities who have recently begun enforcing their own restrictions.
Since a new county law took effect a month ago, sheriff's deputies have sent notices to a dozen medical pot dispensaries and roughly 100 growers demanding they close up shop. Deputies have yet to follow through on the demands but say federal support will make that task easier.
"We've needed federal help and prosecution shutting these places down," Sheriff Margaret Mims said. "I'm very pleased we have it now."
The full-court press on medical marijuana is certain to slow what has become a booming and, many say, problematic drug trade in Fresno County. Many growers and dispensary owners already are packing it in.
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But the imminent crackdown also is renewing questions -- and confusion -- over the legality of medical pot, and the industry's future remains unsettled.
County policymakers say they're unsure how far to push their new restrictions since state law, unlike federal law, permits marijuana to be grown, distributed and used as medicine. Complicating matters, the county rules allow limited use and cultivation of the drug.
People who use medical marijuana and their suppliers also are confounded. Most thought they had legal clearance for what they did. Now they fear stepped-up enforcement will dry up their supplies or they'll get into trouble.
"My phone has been ringing off the hook, with mostly elderly patients scared to death about the government coming in and taking their home and seizing their property," said Diana Kirby, a leader in the Fresno chapter of Americans for Safe Access.
"We don't know what's going on."
On Oct. 7, the U.S. Attorney's Office made its case that California's Compassionate Use Act is being used as cover for drug dealers to make big profits off marijuana.
Before the announcement, many in California thought the federal government was staying out of the messy medical pot debate. The Obama administration had indicated that federal law enforcement resources would not be devoted to people operating in compliance with state marijuana laws.
But federal prosecutors, claiming that California law was being abused, pledged to crack down.
Just days earlier, prosecutors brought drug charges against owners of two local medical pot dispensaries, Buds 4 Life in Tarpey Village and Buds 4 Life North in Friant. The owners were taking in as much as $50,000 a day in an industry that is supposed to be nonprofit, according to court records.
Since then, the U.S. Attorney's Office has sent letters to more dispensary and nursery sites in the area, ordering marijuana operations to cease. A "couple dozen" owners have been contacted in Fresno, Tulare, Madera and Kern counties, officials said, and more will be notified.
Federal officials declined to say who is receiving the orders and exactly how many letters were sent out.
"Generally, when we enforce federal law, we go after the bigger cases," said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, who covers the state's Eastern District.
Horwood would not say when the new orders would be enforced.
The letters issued in Fresno County come on top of the warnings sent by the Sheriff's Office last month.
Mims said she gave federal authorities the names and addresses of people she contacted, and she expects those people to receive letters from the U.S. Attorney's Office, if they haven't already.
The grow sites Mims has targeted range from farmland to foothills. Most of the areas where marijuana is being grown were identified by helicopter.
"It's been out of control with people thinking they were getting away with something," Mims said. But "I think we've proven that medical marijuana in California is really a for-profit business. And marijuana grown in California under the guise of medical marijuana is being transported across state lines for other reasons."
Caught in the middle
Despite orders to close, most of the dozen or so storefront medical marijuana dispensaries in Fresno County remain open for business.
The county ordinance gives dispensaries until March 1, 2012, to wind down operations. The orders from the U.S. Attorney's Office, however, demand immediate closure.
At least one Fresno County property owner who rents space to a dispensary has received an order from federal authorities. That landlord has since asked his Clovis Avenue tenant to move out. Garden Ablaze, according to the dispensary's attorney Brenda Linder, will close, though a date has not been set.
"The bottom line is that with the federal law the way it is, we've always known they could shut us down," Linder said, adding that she believed the decision is a bad one. "If there is somebody out there doing something grossly wrong, why can't that be dealt with on the individual level? Why target everybody?"
As more dispensaries are pressured to close, advocates of the drug fear vital supply lines will be choked.
"If they close all the dispensaries, where are we going to get the medicine?" asked Kirby, with Americans for Safe Access. "A lot of elderly can't grow their own."
Kirby, 69, started using marijuana after she was disabled in a car wreck years ago.
"I had surgery 14 times in my leg in the first three years after the accident. I fractured my back in three places, and I broke the ribs in the back area in 14 places," she said. "If they take it away from me, I would probably just die because I cannot tolerate the pain."
Many dispensary managers say they don't plan to abandon their clients -- now or when the county's grace period ends in March.
"You think that people are going to close up just because the feds say it's going to be against the law?" said Jody Watkins, operator of the Mind, Body and Soul Collective in Malaga. "Hell, it's been against the law for a long time."
Watkins and others cite the state's medical marijuana laws, approved by voters in 1996, as grounds to legally operate. And they say they'll continue to fight for that right.
A loose coalition of dispensary managers has drafted a ballot initiative to overturn the county's medical marijuana ordinance. They hope to replace it with a more marijuana-friendly ordinance. The measure is yet to be filed with the Elections Office, however.
The group also is threatening legal action, claiming that county rules are too strict and run counter to the state's marijuana law.
The county ordinance bans all storefront sales in unincorporated Fresno County, an attempt to stamp out noise, traffic and petty crime associated with dispensaries.
The ordinance also limits the cultivation of marijuana to indoor sites in industrial areas. And it dictates that people use medical marijuana only in their homes.
"We haven't given up our fight," said Sean Dwyer, the operator of California Herbal Relief Center on Shaw Avenue. He is part of the coalition trying to ensure medical marijuana remains legal. "We're still looking to evaluate what our best action is."
Dwyer, however, acknowledged that the federal government's presence limits his options. Attempts to legitimize the trade under local and state laws, he said, will be futile if the federal prohibition on marijuana is enforced.
County law waits on feds
County administrators also said their hands are tied by the federal government, which has ultimate say over controlled substances and could render the local marijuana ordinance moot.
"If it's something they continue to pursue, it's something that supersedes our jurisdiction," said Bernard Jimenez, the county planner who wrote the county's marijuana regulations.
Jimenez said the county will proceed with its local ordinance until told to do otherwise.
The U.S. Attorney's Office would not comment on Fresno County's ordinance.
County planners, at the request of the Board of Supervisors and independent of recent federal actions, intend to recommend changes to the local ordinance after convening a task force on the regulation. Supervisors are expected to consider the recommendations next month.
The proposals are likely to include changing the current law to allow medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in certain industrial areas.
Another proposal would allow people with medical needs to grow a small amount of marijuana at home for personal consumption, both indoors and out.
Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, who led the push to regulate medical marijuana, said new federal involvement makes it difficult to know how the county ordinance should read.
"It's like trying to play a ball game with different rules," she said. "I don't know where we're headed with this."