LIVINGSTON -- Local law enforcement agencies are following through on a recent threat to crack down on large-scale medical marijuana grows.
The Sheriff's Department this month busted up more than a half-dozen pot operations despite the growers possessing medical marijuana prescriptions, which makes cultivation legal under state law.
Those operations are "out of compliance," said deputy Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the department. "The investigation is still ongoing, with more warrants and arrests planned in the near future."
The Sheriff's Department would not comment on specifically how growers had violated the law.
The deputies destroyed more than 800 marijuana plants found during raids mainly focused in and around Livingston.
Most of the people involved were not arrested, but complaints were filed against them with the county district attorney's office. It's not clear whether authorities will press charges.
Livingston Police Chief Ruben Chavez said crime around the pot-growing operations in his community occurs "infrequently." However, he said, many people in and around Livingston have been complaining about the presence of the marijuana-growing operations.
"Most of the times we became aware of it were complaints through City Hall," he said.
In April, the Sheriff's Department issued a public statement saying that it intended to crack down on large-scale medical marijuana growing operations in concert with federal agents and prosecutors.
The move followed several similar public announcements by U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, the top federal prosecutor for the region.
According to Wagner's statements at the time, law enforcement efforts would be focused on people who illegally sell medical marijuana.
"We're not interested in prosecuting everyone," he said. "We're interested in people who are making significant money from trafficking a controlled substance."
These most recent raids in Merced County didn't include the assistance of federal agents, and no federal charges are being sought currently, according to the Sheriff's Department.
Although growing medicinal marijuana with a prescription is allowed under state rules, selling it remains a legal gray area.
Going through courts
The question of whether a dispensary or storefront can legally sell marijuana could be headed to the California Supreme Court as the state grapples with a number of conflicting lower court decisions.
Even medical marijuana advocates acknowledge, however, that the sale and distribution of marijuana between two people who have not previously agreed -- typically in writing -- to form a collective remains punishable under state law, even if both the buyer and the seller have prescriptions for medical cannabis.
Dispensaries have tried to safeguard themselves against this situation by requiring buyers to not only show proof of a doctor's prescription but also to fill out a form stating that the buyer has joined the organization's collective.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.