By Peter Hecht
California's four U.S. attorneys, declaring that marijuana dispensaries in the state are illicit, profiteering operations violating federal law, today announced multiple criminal complaints and forfeiture actions against medical pot stores, property owners and major cultivators.
"We want to put to rest the notion that large marijuana businesses can shelter themselves under state law," said Melinda Haag, the top federal prosecutor in San Francisco who joined U.S attorneys from Sacramento, San Diego and Los Angeles in a Sacramento press conference.
Haag said the voter-approved Compassionate Use Act, which legalized medical marijuana use in California in 1996, "has been hijacked by profiteers...using the cover to make enormous amounts of money" as California cities burgeon with marijuana storefronts purporting to serve suffering people.
Sacramento U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner announced criminal complaints, including charges against a Los Angeles attorney, Nathan V. Hoffman, whom he alleged pocketed millions of dollars in organizing growing schemes for marijuana dispensaries. Wagner said Hoffman formed a management company that brought in two prize-winning Sutter County tomato growers, Thomas Jopson, 62, and David Jopson, 60, to convert their greenhouses to cultivating thousands of marijuana plants.
Wagner also announced criminal charges against a Florida man, Keith Andrew Baia, who moved to Redding to set up a warehouse for growing marijuana, and against two Fresno County dispensary operators, Mark and Ryan Bagdasarian, whom he said were taking in $30,000 to $50,000 a day from marijuana sales and had nearly $600,000 and more than 250 pounds of pot on hand.
U.S. Attorneys in recent days began sending letters to dispensaries and landlords for the marijuana stores and cultivators, warning them of potential property seizures and federal charges.
In Orange County, federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against owners of strip mall that leased 11 suites to marijuana stores. In the San Fernando Valley, they targeted operators of a now-closed dispensary on conspiracy charges for allegedly coordinating up to $200,000 in monthly marijuana sales to customers as far away as New York.
Wagner said U.S. attorneys will be targeting major commercial operations in California - but said not every dispensary should expect a letter from the federal government.
"Our intention is not to prosecute everybody in the state," he said. "Our intention is to get people's attention in order to deter this activity."
Photo caption: U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. holds a copy photo of a magazine which shows how much money plays into the marijuana issue at a news conference in Sacramento on Friday. Photo by Randy Pench