The Drug Enforcement Administration sent warning letters Thursday to the operators and landlords of 23 dispensaries located within 1,000 feet of a school or playground in Western Washington. The letters say that if the storefronts don't stop selling and distributing marijuana within 30 days, they could face criminal prosecution or forfeit the properties to the federal government.
"We all work hard to create a safe zone for kids in school," Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a statement announcing the letters. "We need to enforce one message for our students: Drugs have no place in or near our schools."
The warnings come as voters in Washington, Colorado and Oregon are set to vote this fall on legislation that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. Pot would remain illegal under federal law, and it's unclear how the Justice Department would respond if any of the measures pass. The federal government could sue to block the measures from taking effect on the grounds that they would conflict with federal law.
Last month, three dispensaries near Wenatchee in central Washington closed down after being threatened by federal prosecutors.
Thursday's letters mirrored federal efforts in other states, including California and Colorado, to combat the proliferation of pot shops. In southern California this week, the feds filed three forfeiture lawsuits and sent warning letters to more than 60 Orange County marijuana clinics. More than 300 pot stores and grows have been targeted in the Central District of California, which stretches from Santa Barbara to San Bernardino counties, since October, when that state's four U.S. attorneys announced an effort to curb dispensaries.
In Colorado, more than 50 have closed or moved after receiving similar letters from the U.S. attorney there.
Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle medical marijuana attorney, said the letters put landlords in a tough position. They can't possibly win if they fight the feds in court because the law is clear, but in a tough economy, they might not be able to find new tenants right away.
"It's an open intimidation tactic, and it's a very unfair tactic," Hiatt said. "It puts private landlords at the tip of a spear of a federal policy that most of the public doesn't support. They're treating these people exactly like drug dealers, just as they would treat the owner of a crack house. The same kinds of laws apply."