California under siege

On a heady evening in November, 1996, when Arizona and California voters had rejected drug war propaganda and affirmed the nation’s first referendum-approved medical marijuana laws, Dennis Peron and other sponsors of California’s Proposition 215 smoked phat joints to celebrate their improbable victory.
Peron and his raggedy band of AIDS and cancer patients, gay activists, civil libertarians, pot politicians, and wealthy clandestine financiers had pulled off a coup, winning the hearts of California voters despite intense lobbying against Prop 215 by Presidents Clinton, Carter, Ford, and Bush, and their allies in the drug war industry.

Prop 215 led the way for a citizen-sponsored med-pot revolution. Since 1996, Maine, Colorado, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, and Nevada have legalized medical marijuana. Voters in the District of Columbia also legalized med-pot, but right-wing Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr blocked democracy in DC (which is ruled by a Byzantine federal bureaucracy) by arbitrarily decertifying the results of the 1998 balloting.

Many med-pot states have instituted implementation guidelines including identification cards, cultivation protocols, and law enforcement limitations. But in California, where the med-pot revolution began, medical marijuana users are subject to a patchwork of conflicting regulations and police procedures that often contradict Prop 215’s promise that people holding a bona fide doctor’s recommendation for marijuana would not be victimized by police and prosecutors.

In some California counties, medical cannabis users and growers are mostly left alone by police, but in counties like Butte, Shasta, Sacramento, Glenn, Trinity, El Dorado, and Placer, sick and dying people are still being arrested despite their compliance with Prop 215. Their medicine and assets are being confiscated. Guns are put to their heads. Their families are traumatized. Their health suffers. They die.

When candidate George W Bush was asked about medical marijuana during the 2000 political campaign, he said he respected the rights of state voters to make sovereign decisions about medical pot. But now that W has become president, and especially since terrorist bombings on September 11 have given him a bully pulpit, US Attorney General John Ashcroft, his Justice Department, and the DEA are moving aggressively to destroy California’s medical marijuana movement.

“They view California as ground zero for medical marijuana,” explains Jeff Jones, the boy wonder founder of the Oakland Cannabis Cooperative whose bid to legally provide medical pot to patients failed in the Supreme Court last April.

During the six years I’ve known Jones, he’s always been a handsome poster boy for the marijuana movement, pursued by lusty cannababes because of his good looks, wit, compassion and courage. I hadn’t seen him in a year when I visited him in late 2001 at his office in Oakland, and I was shocked to see that his hair was turning gray and his boyish face was now lined with age and worry. He looked ten years older.

“Don’t take my picture and put it in a magazine,” Jones said, fending off my camera. “We are going to have to man the barricades. I predict that within a few months the feds are going to come in here and treat us like terrorists. They know this is where the medical marijuana movement started. If they can stop it here, they can stop it everywhere else. It’s a time of fear.”

Dale Schafer, Elizabeth Fry and family: med-pot advocates attacked by DEA.Dale Schafer, Elizabeth Fry and family: med-pot advocates attacked by DEA.State of siege

After September 11, Scott Imler thought his Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center (LACRC) was less likely to be victimized by government action than at any time since he founded the center on the night Prop 215 passed in 1996. Imler’s club was one of the few in California that had not been targeted by previous federal and state police actions. He’d achieved a kind of informal immunity by making an unusual agreement with police officials. He agreed to run a “totally transparent” operation that avoided the “mistakes” of other California medical marijuana clubs – mistakes that included selling marijuana to minors and to people without legitimate doctor’s recommendations.

Imler insisted on verifying all doctors’ recommendations, screening applicants, and limiting pot sales amounts. He said he would “refuse to lie to protect growers and illicit dealers” if police asked him for information about them. Imler’s relationship with police caused many California cannabis activists to distrust him. Some accused him of being “the narc” who provided key testimony that led to the indictment and eventual conviction of Southern California marijuana advocate-authors Tod McCormick and Peter McWilliams.

McCormick’s friend Renee Boje, accused by the feds of helping McCormick grow 4,000 pot plants in a Bel Air mansion, fled to Canada rather than comply with the government’s demand that she provide testimony damaging to her friends. McCormick is now in federal prison. McWilliams died while awaiting sentencing because a judge refused to let him use medical marijuana.

Imler won’t talk on the record about the McCormick-McWilliams case. He says his only loyalty is to patients, that whatever he has done has been so that LACRC would remain open. He acts as if he is untroubled by allegations that his cooperative relationship with law enforcement means that he sells out his comrades in the marijuana industry.

Even those people who suspect that Imler was too cozy with police condemn what police did to LACRC on October 25, 2001. While the federal government was supposed to be protecting America from terrorists who had supposedly threatened to blow up California’s bridges, 30 DEA agents were terrorizing Imler’s med-pot club. Local law enforcement officials had tried to talk the feds out of the raids. When they realized that the feds were going to kick down Imler’s door anyway, they called to warn him.

The DEA stole 500 specially-bred med-pot plants, several pounds of cannabis, 960 patient records, computers, and 56 grow lights. They also stole Imler’s meager personal assets and froze the LACRC’s bank accounts. Imler doubts the LACRC can survive. He says patients who counted on him are suffering and dying due to lack of quality medicine. He says he was betrayed by the federal government.

“We made the mistake of trusting them,” he complains. “We applied for a DEA license to manufacture a controlled substance; they used that application as a justification for their search warrant. We went before Congressional committees and the General Accounting Office, believing that if we were honest and open, that they would operate in good faith as well. They used our honesty to set us up.”

Growers and patients associated with the LACRC have also felt the federal stinger since September 11. Several grow rooms supplying LACRC have been busted. Patients and other growers worry that records seized from LACRC will be used to bust them. Imler believes a federal indictment against him is imminent.

“The feds are doing this because everybody is standing up and saluting the flag right now, so they figure they can come in and kill us while people are focused on bin Laden and all that bullshit,” said Imler, his voice choked with emotion. “They’re trying to murder our patients and Prop 215. People should be outraged about it, but instead, they’re looking the other way.”

When the Justice Department was questioned about the timing of the LACRC raid, and about other federal harassment of California marijuana activists after September 11, the Department responded that it wanted to make sure that “everybody knows we still have our priorities in place.”

Dennis Peron.Dennis Peron.Killing a doctor

It was extremely disconcerting to hear the buzz and echo of a suspected federal wiretap when I called Greenwood, California to interview attorney Dale Schafer and his wife, Dr Mollie Fry.

But nothing bad that the feds do surprises Schafer and Fry.

“Yeah, I suspect that they are tapping my phone,” Schafer said when I asked him about the phone noise that made it hard for us to hear each other during the conversation. “It just shows that the DEA is a corrupt, fascist organization.”

Dr Fry, who has specialized in psychiatry and family practice medicine for 15 years, is a cancer survivor whose current victory over cancer is fragile at best. She had both breasts removed due to breast cancer. She began a torturous regimen of chemotherapy in 1998 that caused nausea, pain, and the loss of her hair.

Doctors prescribed Marinol, a synthetic THC pill that pot-doc Tod Mikuriya defines as a “monomolecular silver bullet” that contains THC but not the other cannabinoids that act synergistically to mitigate THC’s negative effects and enhance its beneficial effects.

Fry says Marinol didn’t work fast enough or well enough. She tried smoking marijuana; it worked far better than Marinol. She tried to get her doctor to give her a written Prop 215 recommendation. He was scared to give anything but a verbal recommendation.

Fry and her husband, who once made his living as an attorney for police officers, entered the shadowy world of street dealers and med-pot club marijuana procurement, paying $400 an ounce for marijuana of questionable origin.

While paying high prices for his wife’s medicine, Schafer used his attorney skills to study Prop 215. He consulted with California Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Lockyer associates who were attempting to advise the attorney general about creating consistent statewide Prop 215 rules.

Schafer later created guidelines that screened patients who sought his wife’s assistance in getting Prop 215 recommendations. He made a videotape explaining Prop 215’s legal peculiarities. Dr Fry’s patients were required to view the tape, to present valid medical history documentation, and to undergo an hour-long examination by Fry. The doctor’s standard charge for the med-pot consultation was $200, but she often reduced or waived her fees if patients were indigent.

According to Prop 215, a “designated caregiver” is allowed to grow or otherwise provide marijuana for a med-pot patient. After 60 patients designated Schafer as their caregiver, he began growing a few marijuana plants at the couple’s rural El Dorado county home, where they live with their five children, in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada foothills. Schafer says he facilitated the purchase of marijuana by patients, often subsidizing medicinal purchases for poor patients. He also sold 15 grow kits so med-pot patients and caregivers could grow their own herb and avoid black market hassles.

“After the Supreme Court ruling against Jeff Jones, I gave up helping people get pot, and I also stopped selling grow kits,” Schafer says.

The CMRC gained popularity after the couple advertised it on the Internet and became expert witnesses for marijuana defendants. Since the CMRC opened in 1999, the couple has helped approximately 6,500 people get medical recommendations for med-pot. Fry said that one of the CMRC’s main goals was to track patients and create a statistically-accurate database, and perhaps a medical journal report, documenting marijuana’s usefulness for a variety of aliments.

Scott Imler.Scott Imler.Soon after Fry and Schafer went public with their med-pot advocacy, local narcotics officers began spying on their home, taking clandestine pictures, flying spy planes and helicopters overhead, and trespassing. The cops might have convinced themselves that they were conducting secret observations, but it was obvious to Fry and Schafer that they were being watched. The couple, who already knew many local law enforcement officers due to Schafer’s law practice, angrily called the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department.

“We told them that they were wasting taxpayers’ money with their hidden surveillance operations,” Schafer recalls. “We invited them to come to our home and talk with us directly about what we were doing. We had nothing to hide.”

Schafer says he was visited by Detective Tim McNulty of the Western El Dorado County Narcotics Eradication Team. McNulty told him that the county’s district attorney, Gary Lacy, believed that Schafer was in “full compliance” with Prop 215. Schafer said that McNulty had visited him on numerous occasions.

“He personally watched me plant, grow, and harvest several crops of medical marijuana,” Schafer explained.

On a Wednesday in late September 2001, a local narcotics officer called Schafer, mentioning that a “flyover” had seen marijuana plants growing near the couple’s home. Schafer told the narc to come to the house and discuss it, and the narc agreed to visit only when Schafer was home.

Two days later, Schafer and two of his children went food shopping. While they were gone, thirty local and federal police agents, dressed in SWAT team gear, forced their way into the family home at gunpoint.

“They threw Mollie down in the dirt and made her lie there for 20 minutes,” Schafer said, his voice quaking with anger. “They put guns to her head, and to the head of my 14-year-old son. When we arrived home, there were a bunch of expensive SUV’s in the driveway. We didn’t know what was going on. Some DEA agents leapt out of the bushes and pointed guns at my daughter and my son Cody. They held us at gunpoint for eight hours while they trashed our house. They also went to my law offices in a nearby town. They took our computers, our patient records, our marijuana, our plants – everything we had worked for. Then they left without arresting us.”

Dale Schafer: working to protect citizens from their government.Dale Schafer: working to protect citizens from their government.Shattered lives

The immediate effects of the September raid were devastating to Schafer and Fry. Hundreds of CMRC patients, fearful that police seizure of medical-legal records would result in their arrest, called the couple, asking what they could do to protect themselves. Schafer says several patients told him they had been arrested after the CMRC raid; the patients believed they had been arrested due to information found in CMRC records.

The couple’s financial situation, already shaky due to Mollie’s cancer and their subsidization of several employees and dozens of med-pot patients, headed toward bankruptcy. CMRC’s appointment calendar, which had been full before the raid, suddenly was full of holes. Some members of the community condemned them as drug dealers. Their children, especially the ones who were held by DEA officers at gunpoint, began having nightmares and other emotional problems. Mollie also suffered emotionally and physically.

“The DEA has created a lot of stress for Mollie, which is life threatening,” her husband said. “She’s having trouble sleeping at night, and her physical pain has increased. Prosecutors are harassing her by requiring her to appear in court just to verify that a signature on a medical recommendation is hers. The feds hope that they can defeat Prop 215 and other medical marijuana laws by scaring doctors. They’re not scaring Mollie, but they are trying to kill her.”

Although Fry and Schafer have not yet been charged with any crimes, the seizure of patient-doctor and attorney-client records from their offices has already been adjudicated in court. The couple hired attorney J David Nick, who represented Steve and Michele Kubby in their landmark California med-pot case (CC#30, Med-pot on trial), to argue in federal court that the seized records could not be viewed by law enforcement officials or prosecutors.

“The seized records contain confidential communications that are supposed to be totally private,” Schafer says. “We went before federal Magistrate Gregory Hollows, who at one point showed his bias by implying that Prop 215 should not be respected because it was the same as if California voters had legalized heroin! Hollows later made a hollow ruling that allowed some government access to these files. We appealed the ruling, and ended up in front of federal Judge Garland Burrell [the same judge who has ruled against Prop 215 and medical marijuana defendants in other California cases], who ruled that all records could immediately be released to the DEA. It was a terrible ruling that violates the rights of thousands of people.”

Fighting back

With their lives and legal fate in limbo, Fry and Schafer are struggling to maintain their faith and keep their family intact.

“My two youngest children, Carol, 11, and Cody, 9, are afraid that the cops will take them away from us,” Schafer reports. “It’s bad enough that they have to worry about losing their mom to cancer – now they also have to worry about having the government throw their parents in jail for something that didn’t hurt anybody.”

Before the raids, Schafer and Fry believed they could count on the support of major marijuana reform organizations if anything bad happened. They contacted America’s biggest marijuana reform organizations and funders after the DEA visit, and were saddened by the lack of support they received. They aren’t getting much support from the many patients they helped either; Schafer says patients are afraid to help him and his wife.

Schafer was already an independent candidate for the office of El Dorado district attorney when the raids took place. Voters will be electing a new DA in March. Schafer says he is now more determined than ever to win office and “work to protect citizens from their government.”

“I’m not a one issue candidate,” Schafer says, “but it’s obvious that the war on marijuana, especially medical marijuana, is a symbol of how tyrannical this government has become. My opponents in this campaign are from the two major parties, and they have nothing intelligent to say about freedom, good government, or the rights of patients under Prop 215. A district attorney should only prosecute real criminals who engage in real crimes like violence, rape, stealing, fraud and other actions that are obviously harming other people. A district attorney should protect us from the federal government when it seeks to erase the will of voters of California who approved medical marijuana in 1996. Our current district attorney claims he didn’t even know the DEA was coming in on us, but he had already tried to hurt Mollie by making a complaint against her to the medical board. That complaint went nowhere, because my wife cares about her patients, she loves them, and they love her. If I get elected, a lot of things will change for the better around here.”

Fry was too ill to be interviewed extensively for this article, but Schafer said his wife has been heartened by friends and strangers who have given support to the couple since “that terrible day in September.”

“I find it ironic that the federal government is in the midst of a war against terrorism, and yet they have the time and money to come after people like us,” Schafer said. “With all due respect to the people who died on September 11, I believe that my family was also a victim of terrorism in September. The way I see it, Mr Ashcroft and the DEA are terrorists.”Dale Schafer: working to protect citizens from their government.

? Financial support is much appreciated, and can be sent to: Mollie Fry and Dale Schafer Defense Fund, PO box 634, Cool, California, USA, 95614.
? Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Club: web; email [email protected]
? Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center: web
? Dr Mollie Fry: email [email protected]