A.P. reports that the Justice Department is intensifying its crackdown on medical marijuana in California, sending letters to "at least 16 pot shops or their landlords" threatening criminal prosecution and forfeiture if they do not shut down within 45 days. A.P. says California's four U.S. attorneys "are scheduled to announce their coordinated crackdown at a Friday news conference."

To recap: President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have repeatedly promised to lay off medical marijuana suppliers who comply with state law. Although California's law is fuzzy on the question of who is allowed to supply medical marijuana and in what circumstances, the state's governor and courts seem to think it allows dispensaries to operate as patient collectives or cooperatives. The Justice Department, which Eric Holder theoretically runs, nevertheless makes no distinction between dispensaries that comply with state law and those that don't, not only in California but also in states that explicitly authorize and license medical marijuana suppliers. Its current position is that the forbearance promised by Obama and Holder applies only to patients, which is patently inconsistent with their past assurances and makes Obama's policy indistinguishable from his predecessor's, except that he is pursuing it more aggressively. I review this whole sorry story in the October issue of Reason.

Addendum: California NORML's Dale Gieringer, who sent out a press release about the U.S. attorney letters yesterday, has more details:

Prominent among the targets is the state's longest-operating dispensary, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Fairfax, which  enjoys official support from the city and has been operating without complaint since July 3rd, 1996. In a threatening letter to MAMM's landlord, the US Attorney for Northern California warned that MAMM was operating within a "prohibited distance of a park." It goes on to warn  the landlord that he could be liable for imprisonment of up to 40 years, forfeiture of the property, and forfeiture of all rental proceeds from the last 15 years for violating federal law if MAMM isn't evicted.  

Other dispensary landlords in the state have received threatening federal letters for operating too close to schools, even though they are abiding with state regulations. Under state law, dispensaries are forbidden to operate within 600 feet of schools, the same distance as liquor stores. However, a federal law, Title 21 USC 860, imposes additional penalties for sales or distribution of controlled substances within 1,000 feet of schools, colleges, playgrounds, and a host of other areas; the law was originally intended to prevent drug dealing at schools, but is being used by US Attorneys to harass otherwise inoffensive collectives. The Marin Alliance is sited within 1,000 feet of Bolinas Park, where there is a little league playground; the dispensary closes during little league games.

[Thanks to Andrew Tabar for the tip.]