DEA's pot raid draws protests

December 14, 2005

Robert D. Dávila, Sacramento Bee

Medical marijuana patients and advocates demonstrated Wednesday in Sacramento and other U.S. cities to protest a major federal raid on cannabis dispensaries in the San Diego area.

About three dozen people carried signs and spoke out against the crackdown during a noon rally outside the U.S. courthouse in downtown Sacramento. Similar grass-roots events were planned at federal buildings in at least 11 other cities nationwide.

Organizers blasted the federal Drug Enforcement Administration for targeting businesses that are legal under Proposition 215, a California law that permits marijuana use for medical treatment. Demonstrators said the action would restrict access to regulated pot shops for seriously ill patients.

Why are they going after the easy targets, people with health issues like me?" asked Thomas Coy of Sacramento, who uses marijuana to ease symptoms of AIDS. "They should go after the people who deal in the parks or on the street."

On Monday, an interagency task force of DEA agents and state and local officers served search warrants at 13 marijuana dispensaries in the San Diego area. Officials seized marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms and hashish oil, along with computers and records, DEA Special Agent Misha Piastro said.

The raids followed a six-month investigation into the dispensaries, including visits by undercover DEA agents who purchased drugs without medical necessity or other documentation, he said.

"That's drug-trafficking," Piastro said.

No business employees were arrested, although officials are still investigating seized items, Piastro said.

Agents arrested a man carrying a firearm as he arrived to sell some marijuana to a dispensary and arrested several other people on outstanding warrants, he said.

The crackdown, one of the largest at cannabis dispensaries in California, drew immediate protests from medical marijuana supporters. Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group, organized local demonstrations nationwide, including Los Angeles, Riverside, Sacramento and San Francisco.

Legal uncertainty clouds medical marijuana in the United States. While California and 10 other states allow patients with a doctor's recommendation to cultivate, possess and use cannabis, federal law forbids marijuana even for seriously ill people.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a California case that state laws do not trump the federal government's authority to prosecute pot users on federal charges. But the ruling did not specifically overturn California law, and state Attorney General Bill Lockyer has said medical marijuana is still legal under Proposition 215.

At the Sacramento rally, participants accused federal drug agents in San Diego of harassing legitimate cannabis dispensaries and consumers. About a dozen clubs and delivery services offer medical marijuana in the Sacramento area, advocates said.

"They didn't do any arrests, just took drugs and computers," said Paula "Cookey" Brown. "It just seems like a straight armed robbery."

Advocates expressed concern that the San Diego seizures would establish a pattern of state and local police working with federal drug agents to target cannabis dispensaries, despite Proposition 215. In July, federal and local authorities teamed up to seize marijuana plants at a Sacramento County dispensary, closing the shop for failure to have a proper business license and arresting the owner for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

"Any local law enforcement that has a beef and wants to get control of a dispensary can just bring in the feds, even if they're not doing anything wrong," medical marijuana advocate Ryan Landers said. "It's a huge waste of taxpayers' dollars."

Gordon Taylor, special agent in charge of the DEA office in Sacramento, said local officers on interagency task forces are deputized to make arrests under federal authority. He declined to say if the agency is investigating local dispensaries.

"Those people operating these businesses are in violation of federal law and could be subject to possible investigation and prosecution," Taylor said.

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