Federal Agents Crack Down on Medical Marijuana Providers
June 22, 2005
Eric Bailey and John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
SAN FRANCISCO -- Law enforcement officials today declared that their raid of a $5-million international drug ring that used medical marijuana dispensaries as a front would not undermine the city's stand as a haven for medicinal users.A two-year investigation by U.S. drug agents led this week to the indictment of 19 people accused of cultivating at least 17,000 marijuana plants, trafficking in ecstasy, and engaging in money laundering and international cash smuggling.
Medical marijuana advocates said it remains unclear whether the bust could be the start of a renewed campaign by U.S. drug agents against pot dispensaries after the recent Supreme Court ruling against a pair of California patients who use the drug.
'I hope it's an anomaly,' said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
At the very least, 'this is certainly a sign that the DEA is watching people who use medical marijuana,' said Bruce Mirken, a Marijuana Policy Project spokesman.
Javier Pena, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's special agent in charge of the San Francisco office, declined to link the bust to a renewed campaign against dispensaries.
But he said a message had been sent to purveyors of medicinal pot.
'Some of us in the public think they can disregard the courts and Congress on this matter,' Pena said. 'The DEA will not be among them.'
San Francisco has grappled in recent months to reign in a proliferating collection of storefront medicinal pot dispensaries, which now number about 35. Some local leaders, though supportive of cannabis patients, have called for a reduction to as few as eight clubs.
But today, city leaders talked of San Francisco remaining a bulwark of support for California's medical marijuana law, which directly conflicts with U.S. statutes prohibiting cannabis use for any purpose.
Matt Dorsey, a city attorney spokesman, told a crowd of 75 patients and pot activists on the steps of City Hall that medical marijuana remains legal in the state. San Francisco officials, he said, 'absolutely respect' the rights of the ill to engage in 'the compassionate use of cannabis.'
The investigation, dubbed 'Operation Urban Harvest,' concluded Wednesday with agents raiding 26 locations around the Bay Area, including three marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco as well as nearly two dozen homes and businesses where more than 9,000 plants were being grown and harvested.
Federal indictments charged 19 people with conspiracy in the illicit drug operation. Three people were charged with possession with intent to distribute the drug ecstasy and two others were charged with intent to commit money laundering. An arrest warrant was issued for one other man in connection with the case.
Kevin Ryan, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, said that more than 17,000 marijuana plants were seized during the course of the two-year investigation. Authorities also impounded three firearms, eight vehicles and two Rottweiler dogs. At one location, agents said they found 50 tablets of ecstasy.
Each count of conspiracy to cultivate marijuana carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, while conspiring to distribute ecstasy can bring a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a money-laundering conviction can result in 20 years in jail along with a $500,000 fine, authorities said.
Ryan, who would oversee prosecution of the case, said the number of plants and scope of the operation stand out. 'We're not talking about ill people using marijuana,' he said. 'We're talking about a widespread criminal enterprise.'
The three cannabis clubs involved in the raid, authorities said, were a key part of the ring.
A criminal complaint filed in the case contains alleged statements made to an undercover drug officer by Enrique Chan, owner of one dispensary targeted in the bust. Chan told the agent he used his cannabis club as a 'backbone' for drug sales.
Chan estimated to an agent that only about half the patients had legitimate medical need. To wrest free of legal squabbles, according to the affidavit, Chan said he hired several criminal defense attorneys, including famed drug lawyer Tony Serra and former San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terrence Hallinan.
'If I get busted for weed here, I'll take these patients to court,' he said. 'If it comes down to a battle in court, what are you gonna do? You're going to bring patients in court, like really sick patients with cancer, have them sit on the stand for you. And no jury is gonna … convict you.'
Medical marijuana activists said they would wait to pass judgment on the targeted dispensaries, but rued the possibility that a few bad apple operators could spoil the efforts of dispensaries operating without profit to help the ill.
'If the allegations are true, it's really unfortunate that they'd use patients as a shield for this activity,' said Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access, a patient rights group based in Oakland. 'If anything, this shows that federal law is getting in the way of effectively regulating medical marijuana. If it can't exist in the daylight, then things happen in the dark.'