The Merced County Sheriff's Department recently announced plans to enforce the federal ban on cultivating marijuana, regardless of any cards issued through California's medical marijuana law.
The change in course for the sheriff's department was spurred by an increase of crimes involving medical marijuana, including a recent homicide in Hilmar, said sheriff spokesman Deputy Tom Mackenzie.
"We have had several cases of assault, burglary and home invasions where the house or the victims were targeted because they used, stored or grew medical marijuana," MacKenzie said.
On April 2, 70-year-old Hilmar resident Roberto Solorio was shot to death during a home invasion robbery. Investigators said a relative of Solorio's was involved with growing marijuana for medical purposes and the suspects mistakenly believed the marijuana was kept at Solorio's home.
The two unidentified suspects remain outstanding.
MacKenzie said the sheriff's department will mail letters to people suspected of growing medical marijuana notifying them of potential legal actions the sheriff's department could take against them, including criminal charges and possible seizure of property.
The sheriff's department stated they'll be collaborating with federal agencies.
The sheriff's department announcement comes on the heels of the U.S. Attorney's Office planned crackdown on large-scale marijuana grows operating on Central Valley agricultural land.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said there has been a significant number of marijuana grows found on agricultural lands in the Central Valley over the last year, especially in Fresno, Kern and Madera counties. U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, from California's Eastern District, said his office is planning to tackle the grow sites with full enforcement of the federal law prohibiting cultivation and distribution of marijuana.
The crackdown will target those landowners who allow the marijuana grows to operate.
Last year a marijuana grow site was discovered in Modesto that yielded 500 marijuana plants weighing more than 3,000 pounds, according to the Department of Justice. An assault rifle also was found at the site.
"These profiteers are not interested in helping sick people. These large commercial operations are profit-driven," Wagner said. "Much of the marijuana cultivated in the Central Valley is being shipped to other states. We will use our investigative and prosecutorial resources to bring criminal and civil sanctions against those who choose to violate the law."
California's medical marijuana law removes criminal penalties on the use, possession and cultivation of marijuana at the state level by patients who possess a "written or oral recommendation" from their physician that he or she "would benefit from medical marijuana" with certain provisions.
Cultivation and distribution of marijuana are felony crimes under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The cultivation or sale of more than 1,000 plants requires a minimum prison sentence of 10 years, while the cultivation or sale of more than 100 plants requires a minimum prison sentence of five years. It is also a felony for a property owner to rent, lease or otherwise make a place available for the cultivation or distribution of marijuana. Fines can be imposed and property being used to cultivate or distribute marijuana may be forfeited to the United States without compensation, along with any proceeds.