King County’s top law enforcers signaled a change in policy by announcing a crackdown on 15 medical-marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated parts of the county.

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King County’s top two law enforcers announced a crackdown Wednesday on medical-marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated parts of the county, starting in White Center, which they said has at least six such storefronts close together.

Signaling a sharp turn in county policy, Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg and Sheriff John Urquhart said such businesses are now illegal under a new state law that attempts to bring medical marijuana into the state’s licensed recreational shops. Satterberg said 15 dispensaries now operating in unincorporated King County are undermining Washington’s groundbreaking legal-pot system.

“The law is now clear. The only way to sell marijuana is with a state-issued license,” Satterberg said. “It’s binary.”

While revealing their plans at a sidewalk news conference, Satterberg and Urquhart were interrupted by accusations and questions from angry patients. One complaint was that the state hasn’t yet created rules to bring medical products into the licensed system, so why clamp down before then? The Seattle City Council is now considering a proposal by Mayor Ed Murray to try to steer roughly half of the city’s medical businesses into the state-licensed system.

Satterberg pointed to about 100 medical-marijuana storefronts in Seattle as a way for patients to continue getting medical marijuana.

Urquhart said the state’s pioneering legal-pot law is at risk of a federal shutdown if it doesn’t crack down on illegal stores. “If you don’t think so, wait until the next presidential election,” he said, referring to no-tolerance approaches favored by Republican candidates such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The crackdown began with stern letters sent to White Center medical-marijuana operations this week. A letter to Mr. Grassman’s Herbal Market said, “You will need to cease operations now, even if you plan on applying in the future for a state license.” The letter said Mr. Grassman’s faced civil, and possibly criminal, sanctions.

Despite the tough talk, Satterberg noted the county’s not-so-tough approach — no search warrants or battering rams, but rather a message that, “It’s time to start wrapping up your business if you don’t have a license.”

Leaders of a marijuana industry group, the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics, questioned the county’s strategy and its lack of a path to licensing for some dispensaries, such as Herban Legends, a White Center shop that has paid taxes, been involved in the coalition and wants a state license.

“We don’t want products and businesses to move into the black market,” said Doreen Bomar, vice chair of the coalition.

The best way for the legal system to succeed is not to shut down all dispensaries “but to license as many as possible,” said coalition Chair Jeremy Kaufman.

Some White Center residents said the dispensaries, clustered in a few blocks, aren’t the ideal businesses. Gil Loring, who lives nearby, said he’s concerned about black-market sales of marijuana coming from dispensary customers. Sili Savusa, executive director of the White Center Community Development Association, said the concentration of dispensaries is “just weird.”

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Bomar said she looked forward to working with Satterberg, Urquhart and elected county officials to draw up a pathway that would better steer some medical-marijuana businesses into the state’s licensed system.

Chris Cody, owner of Herban Legends, said he wasn’t sure of his next step. “I really don’t know,” Cody said.