SEATTLE (Reuters) - Federal agents and police raided state-sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries across western Washington on Tuesday, targeting storefronts deemed to be engaged in illegal drug trafficking and money laundering.
The dispensaries singled out by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration were essentially operating under the state’s medical marijuana law to conceal criminal activity, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a statement.
Federal officials did not immediately disclose the number of suppliers shut down in the sweep.
But the Cannabis Defense Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group for marijuana, said on its website that 15 “medical cannabis access points” in at least six western Washington cities — Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Puyallup, Lacey and Rochester — were raided on Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for Durkan’s office, Emily Langlie, said one person was arrested by federal agents, and that additional arrests had been made by sheriff’s deputies in separate raids across three counties although she could not say how many.
Search warrant affidavits unsealed in federal court cited evidence that the dispensaries targeted in the sweep were involved in large-scale drug distribution and money laundering.
Storefront cannabis shops are neither explicitly permitted nor banned under a 1998 voter-approved state law that legalized pot in Washington for medical purposes, but they have widely proliferated nevertheless.
State law does allow collective medical marijuana gardens of up to 45 plants, or a maximum of 15 plants per patient.
Although cannabis is still listed as an illegal narcotic under federal law, 16 states and the District of Columbia have statutes decriminalizing marijuana for medical reasons, according to the National Drug Policy Alliance.
Tuesday’s sweep marked the first major federal crackdown on pot shops in western Washington since Governor Christine Gregoire in April vetoed most provisions of a bill that would have established a new regulatory system for medical marijuana.
Gregoire has said she was swayed by a legal opinion from U.S. prosecutors threatening to target not only dispensary owners but state regulators who would enforce the proposed new law.
Federal prosecutors said they were not going after patients who have a legitimate medical need for pot.
“We will not prosecute truly ill people or their doctors who determine that marijuana is an appropriate medical treatment,” Durkan said.
Federal agents had raided more than seven dispensaries in the eastern Washington city of Spokane in May and April after facility operators there refused to shut down.
Last month, federal prosecutors announced a get-tough stance against dispensaries in California that were found to be engaged in drug trafficking under the guise of supplying medical marijuana patients.
The raids on Tuesday appeared to take dispensary operators by surprise, said Seattle defense attorney Aaron Pelley, who told Reuters that two pot dispensary clients were “served with pre-indictment paper” by law enforcement but not jailed.
“In eastern Washington and California, they fired a shot over the bow. Here in western Washington, it looks like the feds put boots on the ground and started kicking down doors.”
In July, Seattle’s mayor signed into law a city licensing system for medical marijuana distribution, requiring suppliers to comply with city codes that govern public nuisance complaints, plumbing and food-handling, for example.
Three of the facilities that Cannabis Defense Coalition said were raided are in Seattle.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston