Assistant U.S. Atty. Julie Shemitz

Julie Shemitz, an assistant U.S. attorney, prosecuted a case in which a man who ran a medical marijuana dispensary was accused of using the North Hollywood shop as a front to sell large quantities of pot to other distributors in Los Angeles and to street dealers on the East Coast. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Julie Shemitz watched warily as the judge asked prospective jurors whether they or anyone close to them had a card for medical marijuana.

Ten hands lifted, a third of the jury pool.

"Look at all those hands," the judge said.

An assistant U.S. attorney, Shemitz knew that this would be a problem.

The defendant, Noah Kleinman, ran a North Hollywood pot dispensary. Federal prosecutors rarely targeted medical dispensaries these days, but they accused Kleinman of using the shop as a front to sell large quantities of marijuana to other distributors in Los Angeles and to street dealers on the East Coast.

Shemitz felt she had a strong case. Drug Enforcement Administration agents had emails, ledgers, surveillance records and witnesses, including Kleinman's partner, employees, growers and out-of-state buyers.

But she feared that the broadening acceptance of marijuana and California's medical pot laws would bias the jury into thinking that Kleinman had not committed a crime.

The judge, Otis D. Wright II, questioned the jurors. A young woman said she had a medical marijuana card for anxiety. Another used it for a personality disorder. A middle-aged man said his wife used it with chemotherapy. At least 10 others said they believed marijuana should be legal for medical use.

Shemitz — a 57-year-old soft-spoken, self-described "nice Jewish girl" from a liberal family in Connecticut who started prosecuting federal narcotics cases more than 20 years ago in Washington, D.C. — has no grievance with the plant or people smoke it.

She wouldn't care if Congress made it legal. But it hasn't, and she believes the Justice Department, to remain credible, must enforce the law.

Even if that meant that Kleinman, 39, might spend the next 24 years in federal prison.

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Federal law prohibits any use and sales of marijuana, classifying it as a Schedule 1 narcotic, more dangerous than methamphetamine, cocaine or Oxycontin. But 23 states and Washington, D.C., have approved pot for medical use, and two of them — Colorado and Washington — allow retail sales. This has made it difficult for federal prosecutors in states like California to get a jury impartial to marijuana legalization.

After jousting over peremptory strikes, the jury was impaneled. All but one member was under 45, and most condoned marijuana for medical use. One woman, a geneticist, told the judge her niece smoked pot to help control a seizure disorder.

"This case is not about medical marijuana," Shemitz told the jury in her opening statement. "It's about drug trafficking."

She laid out the evidence she said showed that Kleinman was guilty of conspiracy to traffic more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana through his North Hollywood store, NoHo Caregivers, and a nearby stash house.

She described how he had computer towers hollowed out and filled with vacuum-sealed packages of marijuana, then shipped them to contacts in Philadelphia and New York.

Defense attorney James Raza Lawrence, 36, opened by calling on jurors to make a decision they "could sleep with at night."

Shemitz winced each time he referred to the defendant as "Noah." The judge finally ordered the attorney to call his client "Mr. Kleinman."

Kleinman, looking affable in a gray suit and rimless glasses, watched the proceedings. Out on bail since his arrest in October 2011, he has been living in a Studio City condo and working as a cookware salesman.