DEA swoops down on SOMA pot club

December 21, 2005

Liz Highleyman, Bay Area Reporter

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration raided a home and buildings where medical marijuana was grown Tuesday, December 20, but left the Hope Net pot club in the South of Market District after five hours without raiding it, only to return in the early evening hours.

The actions came just a week after a DEA sweep of 13 medical marijuana clubs in San Diego.

"It seems like our government is out of control," Dale Gieringer of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws told the Bay Area Reporter . "The feds are playing the Grinch at Christmas."

The raids began early Tuesday morning at a marijuana growing facility in Penngrove, in Sonoma County, where agents seized some 200 cannabis plants.

DEA spokeswoman Casey McEnry said the raids arose out of an anonymous tip that led to a 2-year investigation. The agency maintains that federal drug law supercedes California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215).

At about 6:30 am, 10 DEA agents searched the Clara Street home of Hope Net directors Steve and Catherine Smith. Steve Smith was handcuffed and taken outside in his underwear while the search was under way.

Agents also raided a second cannabis growing facility near the Smiths' residence. At the home and the warehouse agents seized about 600 additional plants, processed marijuana and cannabis food products, growing equipment, financial documents, patient records, and approximately $20,000 in cash. No arrests were made at any of the locations.

DEA agents arrived at the Hope Net dispensary at 223 Ninth Street around 11 a.m., where they observed the club from two black pickup trucks. Responding to an action alert from Americans for Safe Access and other medical cannabis advocates, nearly 100 demonstrators gathered outside the club starting about noon.

District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly, who represents the South of Market neighborhood where Hope Net is located, was among the speakers at an impromptu early afternoon press conference.

"To take medicine away from those who need it at a time like this is an outrage," he said.

District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who sponsored the new cannabis dispensary regulations adopted by the board on November 15, urged city officials to find out what the federal government was up to, saying "No matter what legislation we craft, we always have to look over our shoulder."

San Francisco police did not take part in Tuesday's actions, although they provided traffic control during the protest outside the dispensary.

"I am outraged by the federal government's continued crusade against medical cannabis dispensaries that provide thousands of patients with safe access to the medicine they need," Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said in a prepared statement. "The federal Drug Enforcement Administration is severely misguided in expending its precious resources to harass patients and providers rather than working on other public safety issues that actually pose a threat to the public."

Hope Net, which is well regarded among medical cannabis supporters, provides free cannabis to about 100 cooperative members, in addition to selling pot to other patients with ID cards issued by the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

"This [club] is one of the most respected for what it does to take care of patients who can't afford their medicine," said Gieringer.

Despite the rain, protesters remained outside the dispensary for more than two hours while the DEA agents stayed in their vehicles, reportedly awaiting a search warrant. At about 3 pm, the agents departed, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.

"We chanted 'DEA go away!' and they went away," longtime medical marijuana activist Michelle Aldrich told the B.A.R.

But the demonstrators' glee proved to be short-lived. After the last protesters left, DEA agents returned around 6 p.m. and broke down the door of the dispensary.

"They broke the door in and made a mess of the place and of course they broke some stuff," Catherine Smith wrote in an e-mail message to supporters soon after the evening raid. "I think that they will come back to arrest us at some point."

The DEA's McEnry said the agency was reviewing evidence and future arrests are possible.

The dispensary will remain closed indefinitely, since it no longer has an available supply of cannabis.


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