By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado's top federal prosecutor has ordered 25 medical marijuana shops located near schools to close in an escalating pot clampdown, as the state gears up for a battle at the ballot box over broader recreational use of the drug.
Attorney John Walsh warned owners of the centers in letters that they have 45 days to shut down or "action will be taken to seize and forfeit their property," his office said on Friday.
Walsh's actions, part of an ongoing fight between states that have legalized medical marijuana and the federal government, come ahead of a ballot initiative in November that could see the state's voters become the first in the nation to legalize weed for recreational use.
Colorado is among 16 states and the District of Columbia that allows medical marijuana, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, but cannabis remains an illegal narcotic under federal law.
Federal authorities in other states also have taken aim at medical pot shops. Attorneys sent letters to several landlords of California dispensaries last fall warning they risked prosecution. In Washington state, federal agents and police raided more than a dozen dispensaries in November.
In Colorado, Walsh's targeting of the centers has raised the ire of some public officials in a state where medical cannabis is seen as highly regulated.
Walsh's office said the letters were sent to 25 dispensaries that violate a law requiring medical marijuana centers be at least 1,000 feet from a school. That came after he sent a similar ultimatum to 23 cannabis dispensaries that violated the buffer law in January.
All of those targeted storefronts stopped selling pot from those locations, so no enforcement action was taken, Walsh said.
Earlier this month, Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett wrote Walsh a letter calling for the federal government to back off from targeting medical pot shops allowed under a medical-marijuana law passed by state voters in 2000.
"I can see no legitimate basis in this judicial district to focus the resources of the United States government on the medical marijuana dispensaries that are otherwise compliant with Colorado law or local regulation," Garnett wrote.
Boulder, the college town Garnett represents, is 25 miles northwest of Denver and is one of the most liberal areas in the state.
Walsh returned fire this week, noting in an open letter to Garnett that the Justice Department has authorized individual federal prosecutors to use their discretion in handling marijuana trafficking.
"Federal law unambiguously prohibits all sale and distribution of marijuana," he said. "This office will continue this program until all marijuana dispensaries operating within 1,000 feet of a school have been warned and cease operations."
Walsh said there had been an "alarming and substantial spike in marijuana abuse" by young people with the proliferation of dispensaries.
Colorado has over 650 medical marijuana centers, said Julie Postlethwait, a spokeswoman for the state's Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division. Some municipalities have allowed smaller buffer zones of less than 1,000 feet in some instances, she said.
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Cynthia Johnston)