By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Federal authorities moved to close down 71 medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles and a neighboring community on Tuesday, marking the latest broadside in an ongoing war over California's cannabis trade.
The move also comes on the heels of a municipal ban on storefront pot shops in Los Angeles that was put on hold after activists challenged it in court and by referendum.
The number of medical marijuana stores in Los Angeles, estimated to number between 472 and nearly 1,000, has made it a hub for America's medicinal cannabis trade and put the city at the center of legal and political battles over the issue.
"Over the past several years, we have seen an explosion of commercial marijuana stores, an explosion that is being driven by the massive profits associated with marijuana distribution," U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. said in a written statement.
"As today's operations make clear, the sale and distribution of marijuana violates federal law, and we intend to enforce the law," he said. "Even those stores not targeted today should understand that they cannot continue to profit in violation of the law."
The drive by federal prosecutors to shut down dispensaries has caused friction with California, which in 1996 became the first state to decriminalize medical marijuana. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have followed suit.
Federal authorities filed three asset-forfeiture lawsuits against properties where dispensaries were housed and served search warrants at three others, U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Thom Mrozek said.
Prosecutors said they also sent warning letters to people linked to dozens of stores. Most of the targeted locations were in Los Angeles and one was in the suburb of Huntington Park.
"Some medical marijuana clinics have been taken over by illegal for-profit businesses that sell recreational marijuana to healthy young adults and attract crime," Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck, whose department cooperated in the actions, said in a statement.
"These stores are a source of criminal activity because of the product they sell and large amounts of cash they have on hand," Beck said. "The LAPD will continue to work with our federal partners to remove these threats from our communities."
Mrozek said the federal government has now targeted more than 375 marijuana businesses in the seven-county Central District of California alone.
City officials have estimated that some 750 registered dispensaries operate in Los Angeles and as many as 200 more do so without proper permits. A study by a University of California, Los Angeles, researcher released this month found 472. (Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Steve Gorman and Xavier Briand)