In February 2002, DEA chief Asa Hutchinson assured Californians that medical marijuana was not an important issue for the DEA, during a speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.
“I don’t know of any instance in which there’s been a federal targeting of any user; that’s not within the federal priority system,” Hutchinson asserted. “We have gone after traffickers. If you have 500 marijuana plants, that is of concern.”
Hutchinson’s “500 plants” message was backed up by raids in Oakland and San Francisco that led to the arrest of grow guru Ed Rosenthal and several other people affiliated with medical marijuana clubs (CC#37, DEA attacks med-pot and hemp). The government alleges that Rosenthal and his co-defendants were involved in growing, processing or selling thousands of marijuana plants. Rosenthal’s trial is slated to begin in December 2002.
But contrary to Hutchinson’s claims, the DEA has not limited its busts to big time dealers. Along with the August harassment of Butte County resident Diane Monson, a Prop. 215 patient who had a six plant garden destroyed by agents (see sidebar), in August DEA agents destroyed a 128 plant garden grown by cancer patient Alan MacFarlane in Santa Rosa. Fellow Sonoma county Prop. 215 patient Mike Foley, who had previously won acquittal on marijuana charges, was re-arrested by the feds for growing a small personal use garden that fell within the county’s guidelines.
Federal prosecutors and allied federal agencies also went after Orange County resident Mike Teague, a med-pot patient who won dismissal of cultivation charges in state court based on a Prop. 215 defense. After the dismissal, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrested Teague because he had had a legal handgun in his closet at the time of his cultivation arrest. Teague was charged with being “an unlawful drug user in possession of a handgun.”
A similar situation took place in Mendocino County, when a med-pot patient and his caregiver were charged by federal prosecutors after charges arising from their 27 plant garden were dismissed by the local District Attorney.
Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club director Jeff Jones, who went all the way to the Supreme Court last year in an unsuccessful attempt to get official approval of medical marijuana cooperatives, was arrested during the summer and charged with federal misdemeanors because he told jurors in a Sacramento medical marijuana trial about Prop. 215.
Federal judges in California routinely prohibit med-pot defendants or their attorneys from even mentioning Prop. 215 or medical marijuana during federal trials, claiming that 215 is irrelevant because it violates federal law.
Other high-profile marijuana activists have also been hit by federal narks. Scott Imler and the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center (LACRC) face asset forfeiture and indictment, even though Imler had cooperated fully with local and federal law enforcement agencies while running the LACRC (CC#36, California under siege).
Judy and Lynn Osburn, two patients who grew marijuana for LACRC, were arrested by the DEA for growing 35 plants at their Ventura County ranch. The Osburns were busted last year for their LACRC grow operation. They were not indicted last year, but the government is trying to steal their home from them, and this year’s arrest resulted from covert surveillance put on the Osburns after last year’s arrest.
In Lake County near Dennis Peron’s legendary outdoor pot farm, med-pot activist Eddy Lepp was raided by the DEA in September. In 1998, Lepp beat charges that he was growing 132 plants. This year, he was openly growing marijuana for himself and several patients when he was busted.
The state of Washington also has a medical marijuana law, but federal prosecutors recently revealed that US Attorney General John Ashcroft had instructed them to vigorously pursue med-pot growers, and to disregard a previous policy that prevented the feds from prosecuting cases involving less than 100 plants.
Perhaps the most outrageous example of federal cruelty occurred in Santa Cruz, California on September 5, when 20 DEA agents staged a dawn raid on raid on the non-profit 501(c)3 medical marijuana club called the “The Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana,” otherwise known as WAMM.
This highly-respected med-pot club was managed by Valerie and Mike Corral. They had a good reputation in the community and a trusting relationship with local police and government officials; everyone acknowledged that of all the California med-pot clubs, the Corral’s club was the most pure medical operation, with zero profit incentive.
Until September 5, WAMM provided a place for 250 severely ill people to grow marijuana, share it, and find a sense of community in their last days.
The feds used chain saws to cut down 130 organically-grown pot plants that were almost ready for harvest, but when they tried to arrest the Corrals, they found that WAMM’s patients were ready to go to the barricades to protect their heroes.
The agents took the Corrals into custody, but patients blocked the agents’ getaway, and after a tense standoff negotiated by Santa Cruz sheriffs, patients ended their blockade when the Corrals were released from custody.
Patients later held vigils for the plants. Poignant scenes of patients weeping were broadcast by sympathetic television reporters. WAMM patients report that several of their colleagues have since died because the raids robbed them of their medicine.
After the raids, current and former Santa Cruz officials, as well as California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, bitterly condemned the DEA actions. Lockyer told the federal government to stay out of California, while Santa Cruz officials vowed to distribute medical marijuana openly as an act of defiance against the federal invaders.
On Tuesday, September 17, in full view of undercover pigs and world media, city officials made good on their promise. Directly defying DEA threats, they distributed several ounces of marijuana to twelve patients in the courtyard of City Hall.
According to digital activist, photographer, and medical marijuana patient Chadman, the Santa Cruz protest was “powerful and well-organized.”
“Each of the patients got some medical marijuana given to them in the form of bud, cookies, tincture or brownies,” Chadman reported. “Then they talked about how marijuana helped them with their conditions ? everything from cancer to AIDS to lupus. They said that they resented the DEA trying to kill them by stealing their medicine. They talked about how marijuana was their best and only medicine, and what right does the Bush administration have in stealing it from them?”
Well-known marijuana activists like Elvy Musikka, Michael Aldrich, Dale Gieringer, Wayne Justmann, and others were on hand, along with white collar professionals, other patients, hempsters, hippies, and curious bystanders.
“The city hall was surrounded by satellite trucks from the major networks,” Chadman said. “They were interviewing people and seemed real interested in our courage and how the DEA has been coming into California. That lady who put a lock on the gate on the day of the raid so that the DEA could not get out, she quoted George W Bush from before the 2000 election, when Bush said that medical marijuana was a state’s rights issue.”
Chadman says that local police were on hand, but only to help with crowd control. “There was a slight odor of cannabis in the air. If the DEA was there, they were hiding out, because it had been made quite clear that they were most unwelcome,” Chadman said. “I would say that they are unwelcome almost anywhere in California now. When people see you on television putting handcuffs on dying people, it doesn’t make them real fond of you.”
Along with hundreds of other activists and civil libertarians, Chadman headed to Sacramento for protests at the state capitol there on September 23. The protests were scripted by Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group known for professional rallies and good networking with mainstream media.
At least 2,000 people rallied on the steps of the federal building and at other government offices in Sacramento, listening to speeches and providing compelling testimony to media interviewers who were surprised to see the cannabis culture so aroused and feisty.
It’s too early to tell if the protests in Santa Cruz and Sacramento will convince the feds to stay out of California and other states where voters have legalized medical marijuana. If the federal drug czar’s interference in Nevada’s November marijuana decriminalization vote is any indication, however, you’ll likely be reading about more federal fascists invading California in future issues of Cannabis Culture.
? The Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana: email [email protected]; web www.wamm.org
? Americans for Safe Access: tel 510-486-8083; web www.safeaccessnow.org
? Contact California’s senators and tell them to stop the DEA from terrorizing Californians, by passing HR 2592, the States’ Rights to Medical Marijuana Act, sponsored in the US House of Representatives by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). California’s senators are Barbara Boxer: tel 202-224-3553 and Diane Feinstein: tel 202-224-3841.
California D.A. stands up to feds
In the mid-1990’s, when I was facing prison for growing marijuana in Northern California’s rural Butte County, I had nightmares about dying in prison, and about Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.
The DA and the local sheriff’s department had a reputation for being virulently anti-marijuana. Butte County’s helicopter cops, undercovers, and marijuana eradication task force made the drug war a real war.
In 1999, sheriffs again invaded my home, trying to get me to provide damaging information about Steve Kubby. I had visited Kubby to interview and photograph him for a Cannabis Culture article (CC#18, Candidate Kubby). Police saw me at his house, and then came to my house to try to scare me into testifying against Kubby. I refused to cooperate, so they arrested me for a small amount of medical marijuana, and for some miniature cactuses.
My sleep was once again haunted by visions of Ramsey, the ramrod-straight DA, hell-bent on sending me to prison.
But Ramsey surprised me. He dropped the charges after reluctantly concluding that my Proposition 215 recommendation actually meant something.
Later, I interviewed him at his office about the drug war for a local newspaper. I gave him some gifts: a book by Kubby and grow guru Ed Rosenthal called Why marijuana should be legal, some hemp seeds, a bottle of hemp beer, and faux peyote cacti.
Ramsey came across as articulate, and adamantly opposed to marijuana. His rigid beliefs, along with threats from local cops, led me to flee Butte County because I believed I would never be safe there as a medical marijuana user. In some Californian counties, patients are free to grow and use the herb; in other counties, any amount of pot is viewed as a serious crime. Butte seemed likely to continue as a “zero tolerance” county.
In August 2002, Ramsey was meeting with his county’s interagency drug task force when he received an emergency call. It was from a DA investigator, who was part of an on-location sheriff’s marijuana eradication team.
The investigator was at the home of Diane Monson, a med-pot patient who was growing six outdoor pot plants at her Oroville foothills home. Federal DEA agents were also there, harassing Monson and her husband because agents had discovered a major grow-op in a house the Monsons used to own.
Ramsey and local police had recently formalized a policy that allowed patients to grow six plants and possess a pound of pot. Sheriff’s Lieutenant Jerry Smith said his officers had no problems with Monson or her plants. But the DEA did.
“My investigator said, ‘I think we have a problem here,'” Ramsey recalls. “I told him, ‘Everybody is frozen in place until I get back to you. If anybody makes a move against those plants, arrest them. Is that clear?’ My investigator answered, ‘Yes,’ and added, “I don’t detect any note of levity in your voice.’ He knew that I meant it. If the feds had done something to the plants, well, there would have been trouble, by God!”
While Butte County sheriffs stood down the DEA, Ramsey called US Attorney John Vincent to complain about the DEA actions.
“It was a heated conversation on my part,” Ramsey reports. “I explained that we had communicated local 215 policy to our citizens, and that when federal agents came in to our turf to violate those policies, it backed up allegations of federal agents acting like ‘jack-booted thugs.’ I made this policy after consulting with local law enforcement. In my experience, the feds had never been interested in grows under 100 plants. They weren’t going to prosecute her for six plants, so why take the plants?”
Ramsey says he told Vincent that DEA interference with local 215 policy was “wrong-headed, stupid and high-handed.”
“I was very angry about it, and Vincent apologized several times while insisting that DEA agents had to seize Monson’s plants because the US government does not recognize Prop. 215,” Ramsey said. “Finally, I had to call my people and tell them to back away, if the feds are gonna do what they are gonna do, let ’em do it alone.”
And while the feds hacked away at Monson’s medicine, she read them the entire text of Prop. 215.
“I thought they might need to hear it,” she explained. “I couldn’t believe they were taking my plants. I mean, this is totally against what the will of the people of the state of California is. I wasn’t doing anything against the law.”
Ramsey agrees with Monson; he says her case brings up “interesting constitutional questions.”
“We’ve been waiting for specific 215 guidelines from the state. The legislature passed a bill with guidelines, but the governor asked that the bill be parked so he didn’t have to deal with it,” Ramsey reports. “When I found that they were not giving us guidelines, that’s when I said ‘Screw it, I am tired of medical marijuana patients calling my office and expressing fear when there’s really no need for that fear, because I can say here’s the guidelines, six plants and a pound. As long as you don’t abuse that policy, fine.'”
The Butte policy was drafted with guidance from the California Department of Justice, which told Ramsey’s 215 committee how many grams were in a typical joint and how many joints people smoked per day.
“When patients would call or come in and we told them six plants and a pound, they would say, ‘Ok, that’s fair, that’s fine.’ And then the city of Berkeley made their guidelines ten, so I figured, damn, if my old alma mater UC Berkeley can say ten, then my six is OK,” Ramsey explained.
The DA says Butte’s med-pot policy shows that police and prosecutors can be “reasonable” about Prop. 215.
“It raises the level of respect for law enforcement when officers find a few plants, and the person has a medical recommendation, and the officer just goes on his way,” Ramsey explained. “And law enforcement is not so likely to be breaking down doors when they see a few plants. They don’t have to rush in for fear that marijuana plants are being eaten or flushed down the toilet. I’d say there has been a lessening of tensions.”
But is there still tension between Ramsey and the feds? The DA says Vincent assured him the Monson case was an “isolated incident,” but Ramsey has nevertheless instructed local officials to let him know immediately if the DEA rides into Butte County for something other than heroin, meth, other hard drug crimes, or major grow operations. In other California counties, local police and prosecutors sometimes call in the DEA to help or even take over marijuana cases.
Ramsey says he still doesn’t think marijuana is good medicine, but that he will accept the verdict of a University of California med-pot study that is supposed to be finished in two years.
In the meantime, the much-feared Ramsey has become an unlikely hero to many California marijuana advocates ? the only DA to defend Prop. 215 by actually threatening to arrest DEA agents.
“I’m having ongoing discussions with federal authorities and other California district attorneys about this. I believe in law and order, and local decision-making,” he says. “I don’t like marijuana, but Prop. 215 is the law, and I don’t like people messing around in my back yard. I did what I did because I thought it was right.”