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Federal officials looking to seize marijuana properties

November 28, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Federal prosecutors are stepping up efforts to seize property from landowners who lease space to medical marijuana operators amid a widening crackdown on California's pot industry.

The latest action involves the Fairfax-based Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, one of the state's longest-running storefront distributors.

In September, federal prosecutors warned Farshid Ezazi, a building owner who leases part of an office complex to the alliance, that he faced forfeiture and possible criminal action if the dispensary remained in operation at the location.

On Nov. 18, prosecutors filed a forfeiture complaint against Ezazi, alleging that marijuana was still being distributed at the property in violation of federal drug laws.

The complaint stated that while the Marin Alliance was distributing marijuana under a conditional use permit issued by the Fairfax Town Council, it was operating within 1,000 feet of a Little League baseball field. The complaint also alleged the permit allowed the alliance to distribute marijuana to minors and that Lynnette Shaw, the group's founder, was the subject of a 2002 federal court order permanently enjoining her from manufacturing or distributing marijuana.

Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for California's Northern District, said federal prosecutors are committed to curtailing the state's marijuana industry and are prepared to seize properties if necessary.

"I am focusing my limited resources on those offenders who cause the most harm and whose actions have led to consistent complaints by members of the community ? including cases involving violence; guns; interstate drug shipments; environmental harm; money laundering; organized crime; sales near schools, parks and playgrounds; and sales in communities that have banned marijuana stores," Haag said in a statement.

Shaw said her group was in compliance with state law, had never sold marijuana to minors and closely followed over 60 conditions set down by city officials as part of the permitting process. Shaw is challenging an eviction notice from Ezazi, the building owner, and is a plaintiff in a lawsuit opposing the federal crackdown in California. Shaw is also fighting a $1 million tax bill from the IRS.

"Whatever happens to the Marin Alliance happens to everyone in the (medical marijuana) movement across the nation," she said.

Federal prosecutors have issued dozens of warning letters to dispensaries since an Oct. 7 press conference announcing a statewide effort to roll back the marijuana industry. In response, many medical marijuana operators in California have closed their doors, according to advocacy groups and law enforcement agencies.

In the San Diego area alone, at least 139 "commercial marijuana businesses" have shut down, according to preliminary data compiled by the office of U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. A spokeswoman said businesses that don't close would face "criminal prosecution and forfeiture actions."

In addition to marijuana dispensaries, property owners in Northern and Southern California who lease land to growers are also facing raids and forfeiture actions. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed a forfeiture complaint against a 40-acre property in rural Butte County. The land was purchased with profits from drug deals and was being used to grow marijuana in violation of federal law, according to the complaint.

In the face of growing federal pressure, some elected officials are rallying around embattled medical marijuana dispensaries.

The Fairfax town council passed a resolution supporting the Marin Alliance and its "financial contributions to local government." The council said federal efforts to close the alliance and other licensed medical marijuana dispensaries "will cause a loss of dignity and liberty for patients" and force some "to seek purchase of cannabis on the black market or simply endure discomfort and pain."

Read more California investigative reports at CaliforniaWatch.com.


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