By Peter Hecht on Dec. 5 2011
It's the twilight hour for medical marijuana dispensaries in Sacramento County.
Eight marijuana stores – from as many as 99 dispensaries that opened – are left. Dozens have closed in recent weeks amid fears of federal prosecution and aggressive actions by the county that include litigation and fines for building code violations.
The city of Sacramento has frozen permit applications for existing dispensaries, but has allowed most to stay. Sacramento County's crackdown in the unincorporated areas, by contrast, is having a dramatic effect on California's quickly shrinking medical marijuana industry.
The United Food and Commercials Workers Union, which launched a drive to unionize pot workers during the California dispensary boom, estimates 20 percent of marijuana stores statewide have gone out of business in less than a month.
Dan Rush, who directs the union's medical cannabis division, said letters from California's four U.S. attorneys threatening dispensary landlords with loss of their buildings put a chill on the trade.
"There is a high rate of people closing voluntarily," Rush said. "They didn't want to cause trouble for their landlords or they're closing to get a chance to figure out how to come back in compliance."
In San Diego, nearly two-thirds of some 220 dispensaries have shut down amid threatened federal property seizures and city lawsuits.
Three well-known San Francisco dispensaries closed after receiving warning letters from U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag. California's oldest dispensary, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, is fighting to stay in business and preparing to pull its cannabis products after a federal suit to seize the property. The dispensary offers other services, including magnetic massage therapy, physician evaluations and counseling.
"We need to move the marijuana very shortly. I don't want to get the landlord in any more trouble," said operator Lynette Shaw.
In Sacramento County, Chris Dean said he decided it was too risky to continue in the medical marijuana trade.
A former real estate agent and mortgage broker driven out by the market by the housing collapse, Dean opened the Paradise Wellness dispensary in Carmichael with two partners in May.