Owner of nine pot shops pleads guilty to federal drug trafficking charges

Frank Stoltze/KPCC

Marijuana cigarettes confiscated at a Southern California medical marijuana dispensary.

A San Clemente man pleaded guilty Monday to federal drug trafficking and tax charges in connection with one of the largest storefront marijuana operations in the region. John Melvin Walker, 56, had two prior felony drug-trafficking convictions from state court, according to federal prosecutors.

Walker raked in $25 million over six years from nine marijuana dispensaries across L.A. and Orange Counties, including Alternative Herbal Health in Long Beach, Safe Harbor Collective in Dana Point and Santa Ana Superior Care. He was indicted last year.

“I don’t think we’ve had a case where someone owned this many shops,” said Assistant United States Attorney Christine Bautista.

California law allows groups of people to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, and to exchange it among themselves. The state Supreme Court is considering whether the law allows storefront operations to sell medical pot, a common practice.

While the Obama Administration has indicated it does not intend to shut down medical marijuana collectives allowed under state law, federal prosecutors in California have said they believe few pot shops operate legitimately. Federal law prohibits the use of marijuana in any form.

“This case goes to show this is a business where people are really trying to sell marijuana and make money, not to help cancer patients,” Bautista said.

Authorities discovered an AK-47-style assault rifle in one of Walker’s “stash houses.” During a search of Walker’s residence, authorities also found nearly $400,000 in cash hidden in a safe, as well as approximately $145,000 in cash throughout the house, according to prosecutors.

In a plea deal, Walker has agreed to forfeit $25 million in assets, which include a million dollar home in San Clemente and a string of mobile homes in Mammoth. He faces about 20 years in prison. 

Thirteen other people face charges in connection with his operations.

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