San Francisco, December 20th: DEA agents raided the HopeNet Medical Cannabis Cooperative, returning after dark to break down the door after a three-hour standoff with the HopeNet supporters.
According to DEA spokesperson Casey McEnry, the raids were a result of a two-year investigation that began as an anonymous tip. The information led to home in Penngrove, California where the DEA also served a search warrant today and seized 217 marijuana plants from an indoor grow. Two additional marijuana grow sites in San Francisco were also raided.
“I can tell you that it is a clear violation of federal law to cultivate, possess and distribute marijuana,” said McEnry when asked why federal agents would raid a medical cannabis cooperative operating under California law. “Today, as the DEA, we enforced federal drug laws and conducted a lawful search of these four locations and we seized marijuana.”
McEnry said the investigation into the Penngrove site led agents to the home of HopeNet directors Steve and Cathy Smith. DEA agents presented a federal search warrant and raided the Smith’s residence and grow room on Clara Street in San Francisco Tuesday at 7 am. According to McEnry, 122 marijuana plants were seized from the Clara Street building plus an unknown amount of currency and processed cannabis.
No arrests were made at either the Penngrove or San Francisco locations. But McEnry said information seized from the Smith’s residence led agents to the HopeNet Cooperative and another warehouse location on Clara Street. Agents seized approximately 500 marijuana plants from the warehouse location and marijuana brownies and butter from the cooperative at 223 9th Street. McEnry says agents secured federal search warrants for each location.
“It was a DEA only investigation and did not receive any assistance from the police,” said McEnry.
No arrests have been made in connection with any of the raids. But McEnry says the DEA is working with the San Francisco U.S. Attorney’s office to review the evidence. “Arrests are possible,” says McEnry. “We are evaluating information and the investigation is ongoing.”
According to Steve Smith, ten armed DEA agents woke him and his wife Cathy up at 6:30 am, took him outside in his underwear, handcuffed him, and searched their house and grow room at 272 and 237 Clara Street. Smith said his building is 25 feet from the home of San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris who Smith said confronted the agents as they were raiding his home. “She came out and said … too bad,” said Smith.
Smith said the agents confiscated $20,000 in cooperative operating funds and personal cash, grow room equipment, a cell phone, keys, 80 marijuana chocolate milks, personal papers, business and patient records. According to Smith, he and his wife have no bank accounts that agents could seize. According to the search warrant, signed by U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth La Port and special agent Christopher Fey, agents were specifically looking for business records and lists of customers.
During the search, agents found a business card for HopeNet, which led them to the cooperative. According to Smith, the cooperative left no cannabis at its building overnight to discourage theft.
At 11 am, four DEA agents were parked in two black pickup trucks in front of HopeNet. This reporter, another reporter and photographer from the San Francisco Chronicle were the only people present in front of the building.
Cathy Smith’s son, William Curran arrived and was in the process of unlocking the door when this reporter asked him if he was aware that the DEA was parked a few feet away. Curran put the key back in his pocket and was approached by two DEA agents who were waiting to gain access to the building.
“You’re not going to open today,” said one agent.
“No? Why not?” asked Curran.
“You can do whatever you like sir,” replied the agent.
“I don’t have any options,” said Curran. “What is your job here? Why are you here?”
This reporter asked the agent to identify himself and he said his name was Agent Casey. I asked him if he had a warrant and he became irritated and returned to his black Ford F-150 4×4 pickup with California plate 7V91988. Agent Casey declined to comment further and asked me to identify myself. The two DEA agents in an identical vehicle parked behind Agent Casey with California plate 5GYN9944 did not participate in the exchange.
Curran said that HopeNet, which is well-regarded in the medical cannabis community, provided free cannabis to 100 core patients who are members of the cooperative. It also provided cannabis on a sliding scale to another 900 patients who could typically purchase 1/8 ounce of cannabis for $35. Patients with medical cannabis recommendations also purchased cannabis from the cooperative at higher market prices that supported inexpensive cannabis for cooperative members. According to Curran, HopeNet served approximately 30 patients daily.
By 12 pm, a crowd of supporters had begun forming in front of HopeNet asking why the cooperative had been targeted. “Someone dropped a dime on these folks,” said medical cannabis activist Wayne Justmann. “There are thirty other medical cannabis facilities here in this city, why aren’t they being visited?”
“HopeNet is well-respected and one of the most patient-friendly dispensaries,” said California Marijuana Party president Tony Bowles, who operates an office next door to HopeNet. “They really raised the bar by providing high quality cannabis to patients in great need.”
“This is stopping patients from having safe access to cannabis,” said medical cannabis patient Percy Coleman. “This is the government trying to oppress patients.”
Smith said he and his wife had an eighty marijuana plants seized in 2002 before they opened HopeNet, but charges were never filed.
“I think they will target others,” said Steve Smith outside his cooperative. “This is a test to see if the community will stand up to them.”
“I think this is related to the raids in San Diego,” added Cathy Smith, referring to DEA raids of 13 medical cannabis dispensaries there last week. “I don’t know why they would pick on us, we don’t even advertise. We are the only people in town who don’t advertise.”
“How can the feds be the Grinch that stole Christmas from patients?” asked Caren Woodson, campaign director of the medical marijuana patients group Americans for Safe Access.
By approximately 12:30 pm at least fifty supporters had arrived, surrounding the two DEA pickup trucks where agents sat grim-faced speaking on their cell phones. Activists chanted “DEA out of California” and help up signs for passing cars which honked their support.
A press conference was assembled and San Francisco City Supervisor Chris Daly, who represents HopeNet’s south of Market Street district, spoke. Daly pointed out that his district includes most of the medical cannabis dispensaries in San Francisco and noted that supervisors just spent six months crafting a set of dispensary regulations to discourage federal raids. “The outrage that we see here will grow in San Francisco if they don’t butt out of the medical cannabis,” said Daly.
Julia Davis, a spokesperson for Assemblyman Mark Leno, read a statement noting that seventy-five percent of Americans support medical cannabis.
Richard Derus, who owns the building next door to HopeNet, said he had no problems with his neighbors, but said the patients who use the dispensary “don’t look too sick.”
Another neighbor, who declined to give his name, said that several buildings near HopeNet were crack houses whose customers broke into cars in the neighborhood. “I think the DEA are sissies and cowards who are afraid of the crack element,” he said.
“All I can do is examine all the cards and run off anyone who violates the law,” said Smith. “We are a cooperative of patients who grow for other patients, we are just a bunch of people trying to get through our lives.
By 2 pm, San Francisco motorcycle police and tactical units had assembled outside HopeNet and the DEA agents still had not produced a warrant to search the cooperative. A cold rain began to fall and supporters sang “We Shall Overcome.”
“I think that city officials need to provide some answers and ask why this is happening,” said Kris Hermes, ASA legal campaign director. “That would include the Board of Supervisors, the Chief of Police and the District Attorney.”
At around 2:20 pm, City Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who spearheaded San Francisco’s new medical dispensary regulations, arrived. “The DEA and the Bush administration need to understand that San Francisco is committed to upholding patient’s rights to medical cannabis,” said Mirkarimi. “I have no idea why they are doing this, they hold all the cards. No matter what legislation we craft, we always have to look over our shoulder.”
Mirkarimi said he had been in contact with the San Francisco police, urging them to refrain from confronting the protestors and not cooperate with the DEA. “We are asking the Chief of Police to find out what is going on so we can find out why the DEA is coming in,” said Mirkarimi.
Indeed, by around 3 pm, the San Francisco police left the area around HopeNet, leaving the DEA agents alone in their pickup trucks. By 3:30 the agents also left to the cheers of HopeNet supporters who counted the action as a victory for their rapid response network.
But the reprieve was short-lived. By 5:30 pm, Curran said supporters had assembled at the Smith’s house to watch news reports of the raid. As they left at around 5:45, Curran said four DEA vehicles packed with agents pulled out in front of them and drove towards the Annex building. By 6:50, Curran said he and a friend watched as the DEA resurfaced again. “We just watched DEA agents hauling pot plants down 9th Street in the back of their pickup trucks,” said Curran by cell phone.
When Curran and his friend arrived at HopeNet shortly afterwards to retrieve keys, he said he found a large portion of the door missing. “They had broken down the door, leaving the door open but nobody there,” said Curran. “They were just waiting for everyone to leave.”
Inside, Curran said, agents had seized boxes of packaging materials but left behind glassware, paraphernalia and computers similar to those listed in the earlier warrant. He said agents also shattered glass bong bowls used by patients, kicked in the bathroom door, damaged extension cords and even bent and twisted the Christmas lights.
“They were malicious about the damage and they took it out on the club,” said Curran. “It looks like it was ransacked, it reminds me of the last time we were robbed.”
Curran said Steve and Cathy Smith took pictures of the club and said they will sue for return of their property.
Contacted after the raid, McEnry said she could not confirm or deny any damage to the club and said agents secured the door before they left. “We obtained a warrant in the late afternoon,” said McEnry. “We waited until we thought it was appropriate to serve the warrant.”
Ann Harrison, OnTheRecord.org