ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Now, the latest on a California crackdown on medical marijuana. For months, the district attorney in Los Angeles County, Steve Cooley, has been promising to get tough with some of the pot shops there.
Mr. STEVE COOLEY (District Attorney, Los Angeles County): We're going to eradicate the illegal sales of marijuana that are occurring in dispensaries.
SIEGEL: This week, Cooley made good on his word. He filed charges against a prominent medical marijuana operator. Cooley, like many California DAs, says medicinal pot may be legal, but selling it isn't.
NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.
RICHARD GONZALES: Cooley charged the operator of a Culver City dispensary, Jeffrey Joseph, with 24 felonies, including selling and transporting cannabis, as well as money laundering. Joseph pleaded not guilty. Bail was set at a half million dollars, an amount usually reserved for violent criminals, says Joseph's attorney, Eric Shevin.
Mr. ERIC SHEVIN (Attorney): You know, they made an example of him. He's a very outspoken, well-known advocate of marijuana. So he sends a stronger message through the community than, you know, the many other dispensary operators that have been prosecuted that nobody even talks about.
GONZALES: The crackdown comes after the number of L.A. medical marijuana dispensaries mushroomed in the past two years. An estimated 800 such operations set up shop when city leaders dragged their feet trying to regulate them. After a public backlash against the ubiquitous pot shops, the D.A. promised a crackdown.
Mr. COOLEY: The vast, vast, vast majority - about 100 percent of the dispensaries in Los Angeles County and city - are operating illegally.
GONZALES: The Los Angeles City Attorney's office also has joined in with a civil lawsuit against Joseph and two other pot dispensaries, alleging they are public nuisances and are operating illegally. The question comes down to whether those shops can sell marijuana over the counter.
Asha Greenberg, an L.A. assistant city attorney, says those sales violate the letter and the spirit of the law.
Ms. ASHA GREENBERG (Assistant City Attorney, Los Angeles): You look at the Compassionate Use Act or Proposition 215, it provides immunity for possession of marijuana and cultivation of marijuana. There's no mention of sales of marijuana in that particular law, particularly the kinds of retail operations that we are seeing in many cities.
GONZALES: Greenberg says a state law passed by the legislature in 2003 does allow collectives to grow marijuana and recoup their costs, but not as profit-making enterprises. However, medical marijuana advocates say in Los Angeles the D.A. and city attorney are the ones misinterpreting the law.
Mr. JOE ELFORD (Chief Counsel, Americans for Safe Access): Oh, they want to ban all dispensaries in the state of California.
GONZALES: Joe Elford is chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access.
Mr. ELFORD: Ever since Prop 215 passed, law enforcement has frequently taken an adversarial role against the electorate of California. The prosecution of Mr. Joseph's is one of the latest incidents of law enforcement seeking to undermine California's medical marijuana laws.
GONZALES: There is one thing both sides agree on, it will probably take an appellate court decision to settle the debate on whether dispensaries can maintain over-the-counter sales. There's also a strong possibility that the question may be moot. A voter initiative to legalize and tax all marijuana could be on California's November ballot. And some polls indicate that more than half of the state favors legalizing marijuana.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News.
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