The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sure did kick some butt in February, attacking both hemp and medical pot with equal gusto.
On February 6, US health food stores threw away hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of products containing nature’s most nutritious seed ? hemp ? because the DEA’s new “zero tolerance” interpretation of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) claims that the tiny amounts of THC allegedly contained in hemp products are a violation of drug laws.
Lawyers for the Hemp Industries Association filed a lawsuit attempting to overturn the DEA decision. The Canadian company Kenex, the largest exporter of hemp seed to the United States, says it will sue the US government under the North American Free Trade Agreement, for illegally interfering with its right to market hemp bird food and other harmless products in the US.
When I questioned DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson during a nationally broadcast talk show in late January, he stated that banning hemp food products was a rational interpretation of the CSA. Asa, whose name means “hemp” in Japanese, admitted that organized crime syndicates would be harmed if currently illegal drugs were legalized, and claimed that hemp and marijuana were not a priority concern of DEA.
But cannabis was enough of a priority for Hutchinson and a posse of 40 DEA storm troopers to invade America’s most famous medical marijuana sanctuary ? the San Francisco area ? on February 12, the same day that President Bush unveiled his new “get tough” drug policy.
Multiple med-pot raids
Boss Hutchinson was scheduled to make an anti-pot speech that night at the Commonwealth Club, but his homeboys had a 6am engagement with marijuana cultivation expert, author, publisher and Cannabis Culture columnist Ed Rosenthal.
When the blue meanies pounded on the front door of Ed’s Oakland hilltop home, the 57-year-old Rosenthal opened the door and greeted the narkos in the nude. They handed him a search warrant, gave him a blanket to cover himself with, searched his house, an adjoining office, and a converted Oakland warehouse allegedly owned by Rosenthal, then took him into federal custody.
The grow guru was jailed for 36 hours until he posted a half million dollar bond.
Across the bay in San Francisco, agents were raiding a medical marijuana club called the “6th Street Harm Reduction Center,” along with homes and properties associated with it. DEA spokesperson Richard Meyer said eight sites were searched, and that 8,135 marijuana plants were seized that day, including several hundred that were growing at the HARM center.
Richard Watts, son of philosopher Alan Watts, was arrested in connection with his alleged relationship to the Harm Reduction Center (HRC), and for cultivation and trafficking of marijuana.
Oakland resident James Halloran was arrested and charged with growing more than 1,000 pot plants.
Canadian Mounties grabbed HRC founder-director Ken Hayes, charging him with cultivating marijuana in Canada. Hayes was reportedly released from custody without bail after being informed that he faced US charges relating to the HRC. Hayes says he will seek political asylum in Canada if the US requests extradition.
Rosenthal, Hayes and the others arrested on February 12 have been charged with several crimes, including “conspiracy to grow more than 1000 marijuana plants.” If convicted, they each face millions of dollars in fines and life imprisonment.
Marijuana advocates showed up at the Commonwealth Club that evening, angry as hornets about how the DEA stormed into California in a calculated assertion of federal rights over state’s rights in the state where voters approved the country’s first medical marijuana law, Proposition 215, in 1996.
DEA’s first invasion took place last October, at a time when federal officials were supposed to be protecting California from alleged terrorist threats against highways and bridges. Instead of fighting terrorism, however, DEA agents raided the most police-friendly pot club in California (CC#36, California Under Siege).
The DEA’s February raids energized the med-pot community. Hutchinson had to be guarded by a phalanx of federal and local gunslingers as he arrived at the Commonwealth Club to face the wrath of an angry crowd shouting “DEA go away!”
San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who last year declared the city a “safe haven” for medical marijuana providers and users, said he was furious about the raids.
“Voters should be outraged,” said Hallinan, who has publicly supported Hayes’s Harm Reduction Center. “This is the federal government trying to make a point in opposition to the voters of California.”
Four members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors also showed up at the Commonwealth Club, including board president Tom Ammiano, who shouted through a bullhorn that the DEA was “macho, arrogant, and grandstanding.”
Supervisor Mark Leno said the DEA’s raids were a “direct assault on the public health of San Francisco as well as a direct assault on the voters of California, who by nearly 70 percent approved Prop 215 allowing for the compassionate use of medical cannabis.”
Hutchinson’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by anti-DEA protests that included drumming and chanting audible inside the club, and by audience members who challenged his banal, disingenuous defense of federal policies and tactics.
The DEA top gun tried to convince the hostile crowd that the drug war was righteous, claiming that drug users often thanked police officers for arresting them, that drug use equals terrorism, and that there was no scientific evidence proving marijuana was medically useful.
Indignant audience members began shouting facts at Hutchinson. Dozens of private security personnel and police guarding Hutchinson initially threatened to eject the hecklers, but finally gave up trying to silence them.
During a question and answer session, Hutchinson was rocked by hard-hitting queries. A Vietnam veteran asked why Hutchinson wouldn’t let him use med-pot, which was recommended by his doctor. Citing the day’s raids, other questioners asked if the DEA would continue attacking medical cannabis clubs and patients.
Hutchinson claimed that DEA would only go after “violent criminal syndicates and big marijuana traffickers,” but audience members yelled “Ed Rosenthal isn’t a violent marijuana trafficker,” and continually reminded Hutchinson that most people arrested for medical marijuana were not major traffickers or dangerous.
When the DEA boss claimed there was “no evidence at all” that marijuana was medically useful, audience members shouted “IOM, IOM,” referring to the recent Institute of Medicine report that acknowledges marijuana’s medical effectiveness.
Outnumbered and visibly nervous about defending the DEA’s policies, Hutchinson soon fled the Club, surrounded by a cadre of police officers.
According to reports written by DEA Special Agent Jon Pickette, the February 12 raids were the result of an ongoing investigation of alleged marijuana growing, smuggling, and trafficking.
The investigation and arrests would not have been possible without the assistance of several civilian informants, all but one of whom are anonymous informants, who were intimately associated with Hayes and HARM.
According to DEA documents, “Informant Number One,” hereafter referred to as “I-One,” was arrested for cultivation in Northern California in April, 2001. Agents seized 400 marijuana plants and $159,000 cash from I-One, who told them the money had been given to him by HARM in return for 50 pounds of “BC bud.”
I-One was one of several individuals busted in June, 2001, accused of being part of a smuggling operation based in Washington state. Agents seized $240,000 and a loaded handgun in that arrest.
The informant had an “extensive criminal history for narcotics, including marijuana.” He became an informant so he could “receive a reduced sentence pursuant to a plea agreement.” He told DEA that Hayes and HARM ran a Canada to San Francisco smuggling network.
“Informant Number Two,” hereafter referred to as “I-Two,” started singing to DEA in November, 2001, not because he had been arrested, but because he wanted to “provide information for monetary gain.”
I-Two has an “extensive criminal history” involving violence, theft, weapons charges, drunk driving and burglary. He told DEA that Hayes and Watts ran HARM, sold pot for profit, and had a grow room in HARM’s basement.
I-Two further claimed that Ed Rosenthal had a grow room in a building owned by Rosenthal in Oakland.
DEA sent I-Two to HARM during Thanksgiving week to purchase an ounce of pot. DEA alleges that Watts told I-Two that Watts couldn’t sell an ounce at HARM, but that I-Two could follow Watts to his house where he would complete the sale.
Agents followed Watts and I-Two to Watts’ house, where I-Two alleges Watts sold him an ounce of bud and some “unmanicured pot” for $300. During surveillance, DEA agents allegedly saw many individuals exiting and entering Watts’ house, which led agents to believe that Watts was a major dealer.
During Christmas week, the DEA instructed I-Two to go back to HARM, this time to buy $200 worth of pot and to place an order for “400 clones.” Hayes told him the clones would cost ten dollars each, and would be ready whenever I-Two wanted them, the DEA alleges.
In January, 2002, I-Two and undercover DEA agent Christopher Fay went to HARM to pick up the 400 clones. While they were counting and boxing the “babies” and watching other clone transactions, they recorded the presence of a controversial local medical marijuana activist who calls himself “Father Nazarin.”
During the same time frame, the DEA alleges that undercover agent Robert Eller went to the San Francisco office of “Dr Stephen Ellis,” posing as a medical marijuana patient who suffered from migraine headaches. Eller wanted a medical marijuana recommendation so he could get an official San Francisco medical pot identification card, which would gain him access to SF medpot clubs.
The DEA affidavit describing Eller’s work appears to have been altered in an obvious attempt to cover up the common DEA tactic of using false medical records to obtain entry into pot clubs or obtain doctor’s recommendations for medical cannabis.
The affidavit claims that Dr Ellis asked Eller for medical proof of his migraine condition, received none, but sold Eller a medpot recommendation anyway, for $200.
DEA undercover agents are trained to lie, and Ellis claims that all patients have to show proof of medically appropriate conditions before a medpot recommendation is issued.
Eller took Ellis’s recommendation and got a medpot identification card. He then went to HARM and purchased an eighth ounce for $60.
The DEA claims that in January, 2002, an informant hereafter referred to as I-Three called the DEA and told agents that Hayes was a big time multi-pound pot dealer.
I-Three allegedly said that HARM holds “parties where anyone can get in for five dollars.” The DEA says I-Three received absolutely nothing for providing information.
In January, 2002, the DEA allegedly received a letter from an individual who calls himself “Father Nazarin.” According to DEA, Nazarin said he “is a member of a church that dispenses medical marijuana.”
Sources say Nazarin’s “church” is actually the “St Martin de Porres” cannabis dispensary, located in downtown San Francisco.
Nazarin allegedly told the DEA: “There are medical marijuana dispensaries that are owned and operated by greedy drug dealers who hide behind the shield of Proposition 215. Watts, who owns one-third of the 6th Street clinic, had recently been arrested on drug charges, including marijuana, and he had sublet the basement to Ed Rosenthal to cultivate marijuana for sale.”
Nazarin also alleged that “there is a local doctor who provides [false]medical marijuana recommendations for $200,” and that Ed Rosenthal had recently transferred an Oakland pot growing operation to San Francisco.
DEA confirmed that Watts was arrested in California in December, 2001.
Reports from the Colma police department allege that officers saw marijuana “in plain view” in Watt’s unoccupied pick-up truck, seized the marijuana and a stun gun, waited for Watts to return, searched him and the truck, found morphine, oxycontin, hashish, and cocaine, and then arrested Watts on multiple charges.
Watts wasn’t the only person to have legal problems before 2-12-2002.
In May, 1999, Sonoma police raided Ken Hayes’ Petaluma, California home, finding 899 pot plants growing indoors and outdoors. Hayes said the pot was for another club he was affiliated with, called CHAMPS (Californians Helping Alleviate Medical Problems). He was acquitted of all charges during a jury trial in Spring, 2001.
In June, 1999, California Highway Patrol officers stopped Hayes while he was driving, found pot and $4425, and took both from him. In August, 2001, Hayes wrote to the San Francisco County DA’s office, telling officials that two pounds of marijuana seized by plainclothes officers during a street bust earlier that month belonged to HARM. During September, 2001, Hayes called Sonoma sheriffs to report that a male robber was in his outdoor marijuana garden, trying to steal his crop.
And, one month to the day before the DEA’s San Fran swoop, Hayes was arrested at a remote airfield just south of Vancouver, Canada, where he had landed in a chartered Cessna 172 that flew in from Seattle. DEA alleges that Canadian police seized $13,000 in currency, along with pot and a UHF transceiver designed for “plane to plane communication.”
Hayes was interrogated by RCMP and US Customs agents. RCMP then conducted thermal imaging surveillance of a home Hayes lived in with his girlfriend and child in Vancouver. The DEA alleges that the surveillance provided evidence that the home was the site of an indoor marijuana grow operation.
In the meantime, DEA agents were spending winter nights outside the Oakland building where Ed Rosenthal allegedly had a grow room. Agents claim they “smelled the odor of marijuana” coming from the grow room, and that the building’s air conditioner was running full time, even in cold weather, which agents viewed as evidence of indoor marijuana cultivation. They also said they saw Rosenthal taking big bags of who knows what from the Oakland grow room to HARM.
Ed vs fed
When I talked to Ed Rosenthal just after he was released from federal custody, he expressed thanks for the “outpouring of support and warmth” he had received after his arrest.
Rosenthal was unable to discuss some aspects of his situation, especially those relating to the informants.
Dale Gieringer, who heads California NORML and is a longtime friend of Rosenthal, was willing to talk about Father Nazarin.
“This is a real shocker,” said Gieringer. “Father Nazarin was a trusted figure among all the medical marijuana dispensers. They held confidential private meetings at St Martin’s, and here is Father Nazarin spouting off to the feds. Ed Rosenthal had known and trusted Father Nazarin for 10 years. He thought he was perfectly trustworthy, and now this.”
A person affiliated with St Martin’s, who declined to be identified, said St Martin’s had disassociated itself from Nazarin in February. The source said that “Nazarin” was an “assumed name.”
“His real name is Bashid Ahmed, and he is a Syrian national who we believe is living illegally in the US,” the source said. “There are credible suspicions that he is an intelligence agent placed in the medical marijuana community by the government. The Catholic Church says he is not a bona fide priest. We feel terrible that we allowed this man to be in our midst. If he did what the narks claim – and we must remember that DEA agents are professional liars ? then he is worse than a traitor. He should burn in hell for this.”
Rosenthal refused to speculate about the fate of Nazarin’s eternal soul, but said, “I am proud to state that I grew high quality marijuana for use by patients who qualified for it under Proposition 215.”
“That’s all I’ve done,” Rosenthal added. “I didn’t have any guns, or money, or hard drugs. The penalties for growing marijuana are worse than for murdering somebody. I am trying to focus on the blessings of my life, and on the humorous parts of this. Like when they came to the door and I opened it nude, they said, ?Well, at least we know you don’t have any hidden weapons.’ When I was in custody, one of the US marshals laughed and said he was glad that the DEA was protecting him from people like me coming to assault his home with big buds of marijuana. I replied, ?Look, marijuana can be very harmful ? you could get hurt when a bale of it falls on you.'”
The grow guru said his spirits have been lifted by the support of Ask Ed readers, civil libertarians, and movement icons like NORML’s Keith Stroup.
“I’m caught up in a battle between the federal government and the voters of California,” said Rosenthal, who has spent the last 30 years teaching people how to cultivate cannabis. “I’m worried about my family, and about the fate of Prop 215. The government has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars investigating this. They’ve deprived thousands of patients of their medicine.”
He paused to choke back tears, then continued.
“What I want people to see is that this government has no heart and no compassion,” Rosenthal said. “They spend hundreds of billions of dollars on war machinery, billions of dollars to harm sick and dying people like the ones who were members of Ken’s club, billions to investigate and arrest people who grow a plant. If they had chosen to help people with that money ? to build schools, protect the environment, provide health care ? wouldn’t that have been better for America and the world?”