COSTA MESA — Police and local marijuana dispensary owners said they will take their cues from federal authorities on how to proceed in light of last week's announcement that the U.S. Attorney's office is ramping up enforcement against pot collectives in California.
"We're in wait-and-see mode," said Jeff Byrne, director of American Collective, a cannabis club on Cabrillo Street. "It looks to me to be a play to take property. Too early to tell."
Last week, California's four U.S. attorneys gathered in Sacramento and announced that they were going after the state's marijuana dispensary businesses, which are federally prohibited.
Federal officials have filed lawsuits in several counties to seize property and money from alleged for-profit marijuana businesses and sent letters to dozens more — including some in Orange County — ordering them to shut down within 45 days.
Criminal cases have been launched in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and Fresno.
"While California law permits collective cultivation of marijuana in limited circumstances by legitimate caregivers, it does not allow the brick-and-mortar, Costco or Walmart model we see across California," said Andre Birotte Jr., U.S attorney for California's central district. "Yet the commercial marijuana industry ignores the significant restrictions imposed by state law and now revels in what some in the marijuana business call a new California gold rush."
There are more than 1,000 dispensaries in California's central district, and local officials estimate there are more than 50 in Costa Mesa.
The only collectives known to Newport Beach police were shut down earlier this year, said Newport police Lt. Bill Hartford.
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles, said there hasn't been any direct enforcement against Costa Mesa dispensaries yet.
"The department has maintained that we will not focus our investigative and prosecutorial resources on individual patients with serious illnesses like cancer or their immediate caregivers," said U.S. Deputy Atty. Gen. James Cole in a prepared statement.
Authorities are focusing on businesses close to schools and on cities where shutting down an operation has become too expensive for a city to defend in court alone.
"Maybe it will be like in L.A. where they sent out [hundreds] of letters and only two closed," Byrne said, referring to when the City Council there sent letters last year to more than 400 businesses ordering them to close. "We're going to see how it plays out."
The effect of last week's announcement may be unclear locally, but it won't stop police from enforcing local ordinances banning pot businesses, said Costa Mesa Lt. Mark Manley.
"In a nutshell, we have a significant marijuana dispensary issue in Costa Mesa, none of which are operating legally in the city," he said. "Some we've identified as operating criminally. We're in the process of conducting criminal investigations."
Similar to the stance taken by federal prosecutors, Manley said Costa Mesa police target only the most egregious offenders of California's Compassionate Use Act (CUA), passed in 1996.
"We believe there's a number of dispensaries that are operating a for-profit sale of marijuana outside the spirit and guidelines of the CUA in California," Manley said. "A collective is supposed to be for the growing and use of medicinal marijuana for a select group of people, not over-the-counter profit."