Crackdown targets marijuana dispensaries in Northern California

June 22, 2005

Garance Burke, Associated Press

Federal drug agents described Wednesday's raids on San Francisco pot clubs as one of the largest drug trafficking crackdowns in the area since 1996, and said the string of arrests was the first step in uncovering a major international drug operation.

U.S. Attorney Kevin V. Ryan said agents raided three pot clubs that operated as fronts for marijuana and Ecstasy trafficking, and warned that federal drug laws would be strictly enforced even in cities tolerant of medical marijuana.

'We're empathetic to the ill and to the sick, however we cannot disregard federal law,' said Special Agent in Charge Javier Pena of the Drug Enforcement Administration. 'We have the power to enforce federal drug laws even in areas where it might not be popular.'

Twenty people were indicted on federal drug charges in court documents unsealed Thursday morning, and an arrest warrant has been issued for another. Two others face state drug charges, and more arrests are pending, Ryan said.

As part of a two-year investigation dubbed Operation Urban Harvest, officials searched a total of 25 homes and businesses throughout the Bay Area. They seized some 9,300 pot plants with a street value of more than $5 million, said Ryan. He said the pot clubs were both retail fronts and a base of operation for a larger drug trafficking organization importing and selling large quantities of marijuana and Ecstasy, and engaging in money laundering and cash smuggling.

Despite the city's recognition of medical pot clubs as legal, San Francisco police officers participated in the investigation but did not make arrests or enter the marijuana clubs.

While federal officials said at a press conference at the Federal Building here that the raids would not usher in a broader crackdown on marijuana dispensaries in the city, protesters outside said they sent a frightening message to patients.

'I'm scared,' said Kathleen Prevost, who said she uses marijuana to control her post-traumatic stress disorder. 'All I want to do is have access to my medicine.'

Authorities said the Supreme Court decision two weeks ago upholding federal law that medical marijuana is illegal was not the impetus behind Wednesday's busts. But they warned federal laws will be strictly applied.

'There are some members of the public who think they can disregard the courts and Congress,' said Pena. 'The DEA will not be among them.'

Authorities are now reaching out to international law enforcement organizations, according to Ryan.

The alleged traffickers laundered millions of dollars using 12 financial institutions and 40 bank accounts, said Kenneth Hines, assistant special agent in charge of the IRS criminal investigation.

Police made two other pot club arrests Wednesday in Northern California, which officials said were unrelated. Dr. Marion Fry, 48, and her husband, attorney Dale C. Schafer, 50, were charged with conspiracy to grow and distribute marijuana from their storefront California Medical Research Center in Cool, a community northeast of Sacramento.

'Marijuana was legal in this part of the United States until this month, so any attempt to hold them as serious criminals would have been, I think, inappropriate,' said their attorney, Laurence Lichter.

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