Medical-marijuana clubs fear new raids by feds

March 08, 2006

Jeff McDonald, San Diego Unioin Tribune

Nearly three months after federal agents raided 13 medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego County, the government has yet to make any arrests or file any criminal charges.

Most of the pot clubs that closed during the high-profile searches reopened days later. Meanwhile, at least 10 new dispensaries, cooperatives and delivery services have set up shop.

Even though it appears to be business as usual within the close-knit medical marijuana community, an uneasy cloud hovers over the dispensaries and their customers.

The operators worry that federal agents will show up any minute, guns drawn and warrants in hand; patients are afraid they may be arrested or that another sweep would force the clubs to close for good.

Few dispensary operators are willing to speak publicly, even though the names, addresses and telephone numbers of their organizations are easily found on the Internet. Instead, they lie low and hope for the best.

“There's a lot of trepidation out there,” said Dale Gieringer of California NORML, a San Francisco group working to reform marijuana laws. “A lot of the patients are concerned and wondering how long the clubs are going to last down there.”

Law enforcement officers converged on most of the county's medical marijuana dispensaries Dec. 12, confiscating about 50 pounds of marijuana and related products, computers, patient records and other materials.

The government insisted the records would remain confidential and legitimate patients would not be prosecuted.

The sweep was organized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, with assistance from county sheriff's deputies and San Diego and other local police agencies after six months of surveillance and investigation.

Although dispensaries are legal under California law, the federal government does not recognize medicinal benefits of marijuana, which remains illegal under national drug laws.

The conflicting laws have left patients, police and local officials in a lurch for the past 10 years.

San Diego County supervisors voted to sue the state over the legality of its marijuana laws, a move that prompted the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups to petition the court to intervene in the case. Activists launched a bid to impose term limits on county supervisors.

The U.S. Attorney's Office did not return telephone calls seeking comment last week. The investigation remains active, a DEA spokesman said.

“We're being diligent in the evidence that we're collecting,” Special Agent Misha Piastro said. “The proliferation of the dispensaries does concern us.”

Damon Mosler, who runs the narcotics unit of the District Attorney's Office, said he expected criminal charges would be filed against some dispensary operators as soon as next month.

Mosler said he does not know whether cases would be presented in state court, where the permissive medical-marijuana laws apply, or in federal court, which does not allow any medical-necessity defense.

“They're using federal resources for the investigation, but it will be both agencies making the decision at the same time,” he said.

Reaction to the raids, one of the largest medical-marijuana sweeps ever conducted by the DEA, has varied dramatically among dispensary operators.

Some shops closed altogether. One changed its name and removed a colorful sign above its North Park storefront. Another expanded into plush new office space. At least 10 new operations opened, according to California NORML, which posts the services on its Web site.

Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland group that promotes legal access to medical marijuana, said the rising number of dispensaries would prompt more cities to pass ordinances that accommodate the clubs.

“The patient community is standing up for itself,” said Sherer, whose organization is among those planning to fight the county's lawsuit against the state. “Voters of California are saying, 'This is not what we think the federal government should be doing.' ”

Jon Sullivan, who closed his local dispensaries after the December raids, said San Diego is the nation's main battleground pitting federal drug laws against states' rights to permit medical marijuana.

Sullivan said he expects to be arrested at some point despite the allowances under California law but looks forward to the case being put before a jury.

“We need to end this 10-year battle. It's just plain wrong,” Sullivan said. “They gave us rules, we followed the rules and they come in and steal all our stuff.”

Prosecutor Mosler said resolving the conflict between state and federal law, or at least adopting guidelines each side could agreed to, would benefit patients and law enforcement officials.

People “need to get their elected officials to create some more certainties,” he said. “That is the best route to have access to medicine.”



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