Thursday, June 14, 2012

Whittier's lone medical marijuana dispensary closes

By Mike Sprague, SGVN 

WHITTIER - Bowing to threats from the U.S. Department of Justice, Whittier Hope Collective, the city's lone medical marijuana dispensary, has shut down.

Robert Ortiz, director of the 5,000-member collective, said the dispensary - located on the 8100 block of Byron Road - was closed June 7.


A letter from the U.S. Attorney's Office dated June 5 had gone to Ortiz, the other two owners of the dispensary and their landlord.

"This letter serves as formal notice to you that the marijuana dispensary's operations violate United States law and that the violations ... may result in criminal prosecution, imprisonment, fines, and forfeiture of assets including the real operation on which the dispensary is operating and any money you receive (or have received) from the dispensary operator," stated Andre Birotte Jr., U.S. attorney for California's Central District.

Ortiz, who operated the collective with his mother, Dolores Enriquez and his girlfriend, Sandra Newby, said he was shocked to receive the letter.

"Obama had made comments about not prosecuting locally regulated medical cannabis facilities," Ortiz said.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009 had said the federal government will no longer prosecute the dispensaries as long as they follow state law.

The City Council on a 3-2 vote in October 2009 approved a conditional-use permit allowing Whittier Hope Collective to operate.

Nearly a year later the dispensary opened. The collective even joined the Whittier Area Chamber of Commerce.

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the Central District office, said there is no change of policy by the federal government.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has sent numerous letters out, and the they have nothing to do with local zoning, Mrazek said.
"It is our position that every single dispensary we have looked at are also in violation of California law," Mrozek said. "Of all of the stores we've looked at ... they're operating as for-profit ventures."

California law specifically says that anybody involved in medical marijuana can't make any money, he said.
In addition, state law states that the only legal transactions are between a patient receiving the drug, the doctor and a primary care giver, he said.

"It's very clear that somebody operating a marijuana store selling is not a primary giver for somebody suffering from cancer," Mrozek said.

Ortiz said his collective had nonprofit status under federal law and thus meets the California law.
"It doesn't sound like they're informed enough on the particulars of everybody they're sending these letters to," Ortiz said.

Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, said Whittier Hope Collective, apparently was caught up in the crackdown by the federal government.

"Even in cases where the facility is in full compliance with local and state laws, the feds have been going after them," Hermes said.

"We're troubled by the continued attack on these businesses because it threatens the ability of hundreds, if not thousands of patients to be able to safely and legally obtain their medication," Hermes said.

Whittier Councilman Joe Vinatieri, who has supported a ban on medical marijuana in the city, said he is pleased the dispensary shut down.

"Breaking federal law is not something that we should be encouraging in Whittier," Vinatieri said.
Whittier police Chief Jeff Piper said his department never had any issues with Whittier Hope Collective.
Despite the closure of the dispensary, the collective still remains.

"We still have to work out how we'll go about helping the patients," he said. "The letter was about asset forfeiture. It doesn't say (the federal government) will take away our right to be a patient and exchange medicine."
mike.sprague@sgvn.com
562-698-0955, ext. 3022

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