Feds invade California

After the Supreme Court ruled against Angel Raich and Diane Monson in early June, clearing the way for the federal government to enforce federal pot laws in medpot states, many people sought to “calm” medical patients, growers and providers.
California’s attorney general, medical cannabis advocates, and even the DEA said that the feds had no intention of making massive attacks against medical marijuana.

Activists who spoke to Cannabis Culture, however, warned that DEA raids were sure to come, and criticized those in the cannabis community who said that even after the ruling, “nothing would change.”

Well, it’s changed.

This week, DEA storm troopers swooped down on San Francisco, raiding at least three medical marijuana dispensaries and arresting 14 people out of 20 charged in a federal indictment that claims medical cannabis clubs are organized crime, drug trafficking, money-laundering operations with links to Oakland warehouses containing supersize cannabis gardens.

The raids raise several troubling issues that are unlikely to be resolved soon. One issue is that local San Francisco law enforcement agents participated in the raids, and the investigations that led to the raids. Although reports say local police did not enter the three clubs and actually make arrests, local police did admit to being in on the busts and assisting in the arrest of suspects.

The raids may well have originated in investigations by San Francisco police and other local officers, who have busted dozens of indoor marijuana-growing operations in the Sunset District and across the bay in Oakland in the last year. Authorities hinted that the locals called in the DEA to carry out this week’s raids.

This could violate the letter and spirit of city ordinances that prohibit San Fran cops from enforcing federal medical marijuana laws in a city known to be the most pot-friendly city in the US. During the Dennis Peron years, when massive medpot clubs openly existed without much problem, San Francisco politicians and even some members of the law enforcement community hinted that local police would literally go to war against the DEA if DEA tried to invade San Francisco to arrest medpot providers, growers, and patients.

But these aren’t the Peron years anymore. This week, federal and local agents hit cannabis clubs on Ocean Avenue in the Ingleside neighborhood and Judah Street in the Inner Sunset district. Published reports indicate that people who lived and worked near the clubs had not complained about them.

In police state tactics typical of the US federal government, which routinely uses secret trials, detentions, and sealed indictments, DEA refused to tell journalists during the raids about the indictment that led to the raids.

Hilary McQuie, spokeswoman for the medpot advocacy organization Americans for Safe Access in Oakland, said the raids and allegations of organized crime might be a smokescreen to obscure a federal attack on bona fide medpot clubs.

“Saying ‘organized crime’ brings up visions of violent activity, but if all they are supporting is the sale of marijuana, police can call that organized crime,” McQuie said. “They will need to show there’s distribution outside the dispensaries. I want to wait and see.”

The raids took on the drama of a television crime movie as dozens of military-equipped DEA agents, along with Internal Revenue Service spooks, cut the lock off the door of the Herbal Relief Center on Ocean Street, and then ransacked the establishment, carrying away dozens of marijuana plants, heat lamps and generators.

A man outside the store identified himself as Van Nguyen and said he had owned the business for more than five years.

“We run a service,” said Nguyen, a City College business student who for some reason was not arrested in the raid on his club. “I am definitely worried, but I want to make sure the message is out and the patients are taken care of.”

Nguyen says his club was a legitimate source of medicine for 2,000 medical marijuana patients.

“I have a couple of people in that group who are dying, and they won’t be getting their marijuana on Monday,” he said. He denied that the club was a front for organized crime. “I have nothing to do with that at all. I make sure the patients in this neighborhood are well taken care of.”

The raids drive home the changes and uncertainties wrought by the Raich decision. Since then, Oregon briefly suspended and then re-opened its medical cannabis card program. Some medpot dispensaries in California and other medical cannabis states voluntarily closed, fearing federal raids. Cities that had established municipal guidelines allowing medical cannabis clubs began dismantling those guidelines, which will lead to a ban on clubs.

San Francisco government officials had already begun to attack medical cannabis, passing an ordinance in April that put a moratorium on new clubs, and attempted to enforce or create business licenses and other regulations for clubs, which had been operating without authorization or scrutiny from the city.

Reports indicated that the city had at least 45 marijuana dispensaries before the moratorium and the Raich ruling.

San Fran officials now say there are 35 clubs known to the city, but that there are likely to be dozens more operating under the radar.

City Supervisor Sean Elsbernd and other hardline anti-cannabis politicians and residents have demanded that the city close or more closely regulate cannabis clubs. He wants to follow the example of Oakland, which arbitrarily limits the number of cannabis clubs that can exist in the city. Elsbernd wants a maximum of only eight cannabis clubs in San Francisco; he also wants club owners and operators to undergo an application and regulation process similar to that used for liquor licenses and bars.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, also supports stricter regulations.

“The absence of laws only puts out a welcome mat for potential problems,” he said. “That’s how we got to the place where we are today.”

Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, whose district includes two of the raided clubs, voiced the suspicions of many San Francisco cannabis advocates, wondering if the raids are “a pretext to meddle in San Francisco’s well-established medical marijuana policies.”

“It’s pretty clear the Bush administration is not very happy about San Francisco’s efforts,” Sandoval said. “If there’s money laundering or organized crime involved, then by all means we welcome federal law enforcement. But I have to ask myself, ‘Why now?'”

“It’s not an attack on medical marijuana,” responded an anonymous DEA spokesperson. “This is an organized crime group that is using the whole pot club thing as a front.”

Medical cannabis grower-patient Chris M. told Cannabis Culture that the federal raids were anticipated, and the patients are going to become increasingly militant if the city doesn’t stand down the feds.

“A lot of us are already dying, very ill, vomiting, wasting away, in pain, you name it,” he said. “We don’t have much to lose. We’re ready to die anyway. There’s talk of having terminally ill patients camp out at the dispensaries and get into it with any feds who come in. It’s time for direct action. We’ve tried to believe in democracy by counting on the voters and the courts. There are no rights in this country. It’s obvious that now we have to fight the DEA face to face, and if they kill us, what’s the difference; without our medicine, we are already dead anyway.”

Americans for Safe Access is organizing a protest Thursday, June 23 at noon at the steps of SF City Hall.
Please bring your friends and loved ones and stand in solidarity with patients, doctors and dispensaries.

Look for major articles about medical marijuana & clubs in issue 57 (October/November) of Cannabis Culture Magazine.