Off the hook
January 12, 2011
Matt Fountain, New Times SLO
Supporters of the 12 San Luis Obispo County residents arrested in a recent mobile medical marijuana dispensary sting arrived early Jan. 11 at the steps of the county courthouse. The doors hadn’t even opened yet, but once they did, those supporters soon learned that charges against three of the arrestees were rejected by prosecutors.
Speaking out against what they called “heavy-handed tactics” and “misused resources” by local law enforcement, protesters gathered just as preliminary hearings for four of the defendants were about to get under way.
“The war on medical marijuana is one big rat hole,” said Linda Hill, spokesperson for the local chapter of the patients’ rights advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, who spoke at the rally. “The taxpayers’ money is too scarce and precious to be wasted in this way.”
In the final days of 2010, roughly 50 agents from SLO County’s Narcotics Task Force (NTF) searched the homes of mobile medical marijuana dispensary operators in SLO and Los Angeles counties.
Fifteen people were arrested over a three-day period starting Dec. 27, three of whom were arrested in Tarzana, a small district in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Agents seized marijuana, hash, hash oil, as well as a small amount of cocaine from a Tarzana residence. The entire haul was appraised by the task force at roughly $3.5 million.
In an early January phone interview with New Times, NTF Commander Rodney John said his agents collected “concrete proof” every person arrested in the sting had violated provisions of California’s medical marijuana program. In 1996, voters approved Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act, which exempts qualified patients and their caregivers from prosecution for possessing and cultivating cannabis.
Apparently, the SLO County Office of the District Attorney didn’t see eye to eye with the NTF. On Jan. 11, prosecutors rejected the cases against Rachel and Charles Tamagni, who own Trilogy Health Services in Paso Robles, and Roy Allred of Atascadero-based Cannafornia Health Services.
Asked how the investigation has affected their collective, the Tamagnis said it was too soon to tell, but that they were ready to start getting their lives back together.
“But this is just step one,” Rachel said. “Now we have to stand by our compatriots.”
Deputy District Attorney Jerret Gran said the charges have been kicked back to law enforcement for further investigation. He said charges could be refiled.
Steven Gordon, owner of the Pismo Beach-based collective Hopeful Remedies, pleaded not guilty to felony marijuana-related charges and child endangerment. He recounted the early-morning raid, saying agents broke down his door and pointed rifles at him and his 10-year-old daughter.
“They ran through the house like this,” Gordon said, indicating guns drawn, “and pointed at my child’s head—and then they charge me with child endangerment?
“This is wild,” he went on. “This is vicious.”
Others who were arrested told similar stories of assault rifles, K-9 units, and helicopters.
John said he wasn’t aware of any excessive force. But he also said there was no audio or video taken during the searches.
“Actually, by law we’re not required to [record the searches],” John said. “And we always look out for the civil liberties of those in custody.”
What is recorded, however, is information in the statements of probable cause used to procure the search warrants, all authorized by Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Duffy.
According to the reports written by SLOPD officer and NTF investigator Jason Dickel, the NTF began investigating local mobile dispensaries in October 2010. An undercover SLOPD detective used fake identification and a back pain complaint to obtain a physician’s recommendation for medical marijuana.
In November 2010, agents set up a dummy apartment in SLO. There, officers arranged deliveries with seven collectives. According to the warrants, each delivery person checked the officer’s identification and physician’s recommendation before providing the marijuana.
Throughout the month, agents would eventually conduct two or three such transactions with each collective, each ranging in price from $45 to $80.
Attorneys for the defendants contend their clients were following state guidelines set forth by the California attorney general in 2008 for medicinal marijuana. John, however, said they violated state law by accepting cash for their services.
The issue may boil down to interpretation of state law. According to California Department of Justice guidelines, caregivers may receive “certain compensation” for their services.
According to Special Agent Michelle Gregory, spokeswoman for the California Department of Justice, the guidelines were originally designed to clarify “confusing” state law for users and growers of medical marijuana.
“But I don’t know that it has,” Gregory said, adding that the original guidelines were drafted prior to the proliferation of brick-and-mortar dispensaries and mobile services. She said she wasn’t aware if a redrafting is in the near future.
Gregory did say the sale of marijuana is illegal, and that most collectives are operating illegally by charging more than it costs to grow the marijuana, and by selling to individuals who aren’t members of their collectives.
“So, in respect to the [NTF] case—I don’t know all the ins and outs of the case—but if the dispensary was selling to someone not part of their collective, they were in violation of the law,” she said.According to the NTF search warrants in all but two of the delivery services, after checking for a recommendation, had the officer immediately sign a form stating she was either a member of the collective or that the operator was her primary caregiver before they provided marijuana.