Fed crackdown on marijuana includes 3 Kern Co. locations

Fed crackdown on marijuana includes 3 Kern Co. locations »Play Video
A medical marijuana dispensary is seen Friday, Oct. 7, 2011, near California Avenue and Highway 99 in Bakersfield.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Federal prosecutors are getting tough with marijuana operations in California, and three Kern County locations are among the first in the crackdown.

On Friday, U.S. Attorneys in California unveiled their new strategies and released a list of cases they've already started.

Two office complexes and a large marijuana grow in a rural area are on the list.

The new tactics include filing criminal charges against people growing and distributing marijuana and filing for seizure of properties involved in these operations. In some cases property-owners will get notices, warning their property could be seized.

"We want landowners, potential investors and others who are tempted by money in the marijuana industry to understand that these businesses are illegal, and that the risk for prosecution and forfeiture is real," U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said in the Sacramento news conference.

The prosecutors say big, commercial grow sites and "retail stores" are hiding behind California's medical marijuana law.

"People are using the cover of medical marijuana to make extraordinary amounts of money," U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said. "In short, to engage in drug trafficking."

"It's nice rhetoric," Bakersfield attorney Phil Ganong responded. "And there are probably outfits that do that. I don't know of any in Kern County."  Ganong works with and represents some local medical marijuana cooperatives.

He's not impressed with the Federal prosecutors' strategy to target the property-owners. "It's kind of a bullying tactic," Ganong said. The U.S. attorneys say they'll go after people who rent properties for store front dispensaries, or lease land where pot is grown.

On Friday, the Federal prosecutors released a list of recent cases up and down the state. One of those is a case involving an office on Easton Drive in Bakersfield.

According to information released by the prosecutors, in March a large indoor marijuana grow was discovered at what they call a "nondescript commercial complex." Investigators then searched various business suites rented to the alleged grow operator, Kevin Moats. They also searched a warehouse and several other homes, and seized more than 1,500 marijuana plants and items related to growing it.

The federal action is a civil forfeiture complaint against the marijuana equipment, $11,000 in cash and a 2007 pickup truck.  Investigators said Moats was allegedly operating "American Green Farmers Collective." That forfeiture complaint was filed on September 6.

On Friday afternoon, people could be seen coming and going from one office suite, but the door was locked. Eyewitness News called the collective and asked for Moats. He didn't return the call.

A second action in Bakersfield is linked to another business complex on Easton Drive. Again, it's a civil forfeiture complaint, and it's against the properties at both 4700 Easton and 4100 Easton. The feds say the combined equity value of the two commercial buildings is about $1 million to $1.6 million.

"The two properties on Easton Drive are the locations where the American Green Farmers Collective indoor marijuana grows and store were located," reads the state from the US Attorney's office. "The owner of the commercial building complex, Nedeljko Strizak, also housed his own commercial indoor marijuana grow there and told investigators that he started his indoor grow because he saw how profitable American Green Farmers Collective had become and he wanted to make some money. Mr. Strizak stated that his goal was $100,000 profit a month."

Ganong said the collectives he works with are nonprofit, and work to serve patients who rely on their medication. "People think there's big profits being made in these associations, but that's just not true," he said.

The Federal prosecutors said they are not going to focus their investigations and prosecutions on individual patients with serious illnesses like cancer, or their caregivers.

"The actions taken today in California by our U.S. Attorneys and their law enforcement partners are consistent with the Department's commitment to enforcing existing federal law, including the Controlled Substances Act, in all states," said Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

Ganong said the groups he's associated with want any abusers of California's law to be rooted out. But, he thinks that can be handled under the state's law. "I don't think the Federal government has the right to say, you can't do this," Ganong said.

A third location in Kern County is also on the list of recent Federal action under the new crackdown. In July, eight people were indicted for conspiring to grow and distribute marijuana on a rural piece of property where some 2,400 marijuana plants were found earlier in the summer.

According to the attorney's statement, some of those growing the marijuana were paid workers, and another said he expected to sell the marijuana he was growing for up to $10,000.