Narcotics charges possible after medical marijuana raids
December 21, 2005
Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle
Federal agents are compiling evidence seized in raids on a San Francisco medical marijuana club and pot-growing operations in the city and Sonoma County, which could soon lead to narcotics charges, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Agents raided the South of Market club late Tuesday after an earlier visit drew a raucous crowd of protesters.
Agents said they had seized a small amount of baked goods at the marijuana club at Ninth and Howard streets and 500 plants at a warehouse on nearby Clara Street.
Earlier Tuesday, agents raided the home of the club owners, Catherine and Steve Smith, and confiscated 122 plants, along with financial records and growing equipment.
A simultaneous raid in the Sonoma County town of Penngrove turned up 217 plants. The DEA said the investigation there led agents to the Smiths.
No one has been arrested. Casey McEnry, a DEA spokeswoman, said that the value of the seized plants was about $2 million and that agents had also taken away 20 pounds of processed marijuana.
"We're working with the U.S. attorney's office, and they are reviewing the evidence to make the determination on whether charges are filed," McEnry said.
The U.S. attorney's office would not comment.
Although medical marijuana growing and use was legalized by state voters in 1996, it is still against federal law.
Steve Smith said Wednesday that he was in "constant fear" of being arrested and had been unable to sleep.
The Smiths dispute the government's report on the size of their growing operation, saying there were only 130 plants -- not 500 -- in their warehouse. They said the agents had also taken about $50,000 in cash from their residence.
The club and affiliated cooperative, called Hope Northern California Net, has been hailed as a model business by city leaders and medical marijuana activists because its primary function is providing free or low-cost marijuana to terminally ill people.
"They were amongst the first to provide to a union of indigent patients medicine at a very low cost and in most cases free," said Caren Woodson, campaign director for Americans for Safe Access, a national coalition of patients and doctors working to legitimize medical marijuana.
The club received an "innovation" award from the San Francisco chapter of the organization.
"A number of dispensaries are models, but Hope Net is at the forefront and continues to lead the way," Woodson said.
The Smiths said their business had expanded with the need for free or low-cost medicinal marijuana.
The co-op has existed for six years, and the club has been open one year, Steve Smith said.
The Smiths grew marijuana for patients, and other growers gave marijuana to the co-op to meet the need of the 100 core patients, who the Smiths said are near death. The 300 other people who receive low-cost marijuana through the club also have terminal diagnoses, Steve Smith said.
People who go to the club and pay full price for marijuana subsidize the operation. If there is not enough marijuana for the terminal patients, the Smiths turn customers away, they said.
They said they did not know if they received marijuana from the Penngrove growing operation, because they don't keep records on who provides them with pot.
"We can't keep records. We would love to. We would love to pay taxes," said Steve Smith, adding that such records would create a paper trail for federal agents.
E-mail Wyatt Buchanan at firstname.lastname@example.org.