Residents of Mendocino County, the redwood and marijuana-rich territory in California's fabled Emerald Triangle, thought they had reached détente in the decades-old clash between pot growers and local law enforcement two years ago when the sheriff agreed to stop raiding medical cannabis producers who paid to have their crops inspected.
For a $1,500 fee and adherence to rules over water usage, odor control and distance from neighbors, marijuana farmers working for groups of patients could grow up to 99 plants on five acres of land. Numbered red zip ties had be affixed to each plant, confirming the county's seal of approval and giving a visiting deputy proof the pot was legally grown.
The one-of-a-kind program generated $663,230 for the sheriff's department — and prompted inquiries from other jurisdictions interested in creating their own.
But this month, the permitting system became the most striking casualty of the crackdown on medical marijuana cultivation and distribution by California's federal prosecutors. The board of supervisors ended the experiment after the U.S. attorney for Northern California threatened take the county to court for helping produce an illegal drug.
"We thought we had something that was working and was making our life easier so we could turn our attention to other pressing matters," Supervisor John McCowen said. "We were creating an above-ground regulatory framework that protected public safety and protected the environment. It was truly a landmark program."
After four-and-a-half months, the federal government's highly publicized offensive has reverberated unevenly throughout California. It has resulted in a near-total shutdown of storefront pot dispensaries in some cities that welcomed federal intervention. It has upset officials in pot-friendly places, who thought they had found the right formula for facilitating legal use. And it has created uncertainty in localities still struggling to curtail their pot outlets.
Medical pot is legal to varying degrees in 16 states and the District of Columbia. And officials in more than half of them have been told government workers implementing medical marijuana laws could face criminal charges.
But California, which in 1996 became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use, has come under special scrutiny. Its laws remain the nation's most liberal, allowing doctors to issue pot recommendations for almost any ailment and giving local authorities broad discretion, but little guidance, in how to implement them.
The state's laws stand in conflict with federal law, which holds marijuana is illegal substance with no recognized health benefits. And the current offensive is designed to make dispensaries and local government officials comply with it.
The primary tool the U.S. attorneys have used is threatening to seize the properties of landlords who knowingly leased farms or retail spaces to the commercial medical marijuana trade. But they also have filed criminal and civil charges against owners of nonprofit dispensaries they say were pocketing tons of money and furnishing pot to people who had no medical need for it. And in some cases, such as Mendocino's, they have warned government officials.
"These licensing schemes are inconsistent with federal law," Melinda Haag, Northern California's U.S. attorney, said in October. "We are simply reminding local officials the ordinances are illegal."
As part of the statewide crackdown, about 90 dispensaries in 19 Southern California cities were sent letters telling them to close or face possible criminal charges and fines. More than a dozen building owners where marijuana clinics were once located have been subjected to federal forfeiture lawsuits.
In Orange County, the city of Lake Forest had a dozen dispensaries operating a year ago. After officials sought help from federal prosecutors, only one pot shop remains.
In San Diego, the vast majority of the 180 or so pot shops whose landlords were sent warning letters have closed. And in unincorporated parts of Sacramento County, where the Board of Supervisors cited the federal crackdown when outlawing dispensaries, all 97 pot shops are gone.
"What the feds bring to the party is they can do things under their federal law that cities and counties and even the state of California cannot do," said Jeffrey Dunn, an attorney who has helped Lake Forest and other Southern California cities shutter dispensaries. "There are no disputes about medicinal use because it doesn't matter. If you are distributing marijuana, end of discussion."
Federal authorities have not yet weighed into Los Angeles, where city officials tried to limit the number of pot shops two years ago and are now considering a total ban.
City officials believe there still may be hundreds of shops doing business right now. "As of today, we don't know how many exist," said special assistant city attorney Jane Usher. "The last thing they are inclined to do is to tell us they are open."
Until Mendocino County officials bowed to pressure, the federal offensive was not very visible in pot-tolerant places either. In San Francisco, only five of the city's 26 dispensaries have closed, with federal prosecutors saying they were targeted because of their proximity to places such as schools and playgrounds. Only one of neighboring Marin County's six clinics closed, and Fairfax town officials appealed to keep it and its tax revenue.
Advocates and experts say Justice Department directives have sent mixed signals since the election of President Barack Obama —first saying that prosecutors would no longer pursue dispensaries following state law, then stating that cultivating, selling and distributing marijuana was still against the law.
The pressure by California's federal prosecutors came in response to the second directive and the unsuccessful efforts by local governments to keep dispensaries in check, said McGregor Scott, a former U.S. attorney in Sacramento.
"The perception by proponents of medical marijuana was that, if they... were complying with state law, the feds were going to leave them alone," Scott said. "I think what happened is, the administration realized they had made a mistake by taking the lid off."
Supporters of medical marijuana have questioned why the federal government is derailing attempts to create legal frameworks for getting pot to people authorized to use it.
"They claim they don't have any problem with individual medical marijuana patients accessing their medicine, but then go out of their way to prevent the creation of any kind of responsible system from being developed," said Stephen Gutwillig, the Drug Policy Alliance's director in California. "It's basically a form of sabre rattling."