Feds raid medicinal pot grower

March 14, 2006

K Kaufmann and Marie McCain, The Desert Sun (CA)

Federal agents raided a Sky Valley house Tuesday owned by a man who says he grows marijuana for patients of a Palm Desert medical marijuana dispensary.

No arrests were made in the morning sweep of Garry Silva's Dowell Lane residence. However, agents armed with a federal search warrant did confiscate "guns and a quantity of marijuana," said Sarah Fenno Beers, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Though not the first raid of its kind in California, the incident is significant. Experts say it brings an ongoing national debate over the legitimacy of medical marijuana - and the contradictions in federal and state law about this issue - into sharp relief for Coachella Valley residents.

The house was the site of a "collective," where patients approved for the medical use of marijuana could grow what they needed, said Kris Hermes, legal campaign director for Americans for Safe Access, a national patients' rights advocacy group, based in Oakland.

Since 1996, California law has allowed use of medical marijuana by approved patients. However, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last year made such a practice illegal under federal law.

Hermes said that since that Supreme Court ruling, there have been more than 13 federal raids on medical marijuana growing operations in San Diego County, which has a law similar to Riverside County's law.

"This is an extremely complicated and murky issue," said Teresa Schilling, a spokeswoman for the California Attorney General's Office. "There are a lot of gray areas."

When Silva was awakened around 7 a.m. Tuesday by a banging on his door, he thought it was a dog fight.

"I came out of a dead sleep, I was in my underwear," said the Sky Valley resident, who besides growing marijuana plants for CannaHelp, the Palm Desert dispensary, is also a medical marijuana patient.

 

Silva uses the drug to control pain from a degenerative back condition.

Silva said he cracked the deadbolt on his door and 10-12 federal and Riverside County sheriff's deputies slammed the door open and sent him sprawling on the floor with a dislocated shoulder.

The agents also pointed guns at his wife and daughter, Silva said.

Beers, the DEA spokeswoman, declined to comment further about the raid, citing an ongoing investigation.

"They did a home invasion," Silva said. "They took all the plants, all the product (dried marijuana), one light for evidence."

Silva said he had about 70 plants at the time of the raid, 30 of which were under 3 inches tall.

Silva said the agents also took his wallet and his doctor's letter of recommendation verifying he was a legal medical marijuana user. He had applied for a state-issued medical marijuana ID card, he said, and had been scheduled to pick it up in Riverside on Tuesday.

The agents also confiscated two shotguns, a deer rifle and a handgun.

Silva said one of the shotguns and the deer rifle belonged to his wife's deceased father. It hadn't been fired in years, he said.

The other weapons are legally registered, one to his son and one to a former girlfriend.

Silva was not arrested or charged with any crime, but he said the agents warned him that if he were raided again for growing medical marijuana, he would be.

Murky law

Silva believes that under California's medical marijuana law, collective growers like himself are allowed to grow 100 plants.

But legal experts say that's not true.

"Growers don't have any protection right now," said William Kroger, a Beverly Hills lawyer who has represented numerous clients in medical marijuana cases.

"People used to think that if they got together and posted their certificates (allowing them to use marijuana for medical purposes) it would be OK. But they can't do that."

State law only permits growing by an actual caregiver of a person who uses the marijuana, he said. According to state law, a qualified patient or caregiver may possess no more than 8 ounces of dried marijuana.

In addition, a qualified patient or primary caregiver also may maintain no more than six mature or 12 immature marijuana plants per qualified patient.

Federal law doesn't permit any of that, he said, adding that it also trumps state law.

Schilling, however, disagrees.

She said the two laws coexist and that federal law does not override state law.

"The federal law comes into effect when federal authorities make an arrest," she said. "If a state agency makes an arrest then state law is followed."

California's Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medical use, was approved in 1996. So far, 10 other states have enacted similar laws.

But the issue was complicated in June when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal government's authority to arrest anyone using or possessing marijuana.

Hermes said such federal raids have been conducted in other states. However, California still outpaces others in this area.

CannaHelp owner Stacy Hochanadel said Silva was one of five clients who he helped set up home "grow rooms."

But in the wake of the raid, he said he has distanced himself.

"I can't talk to them on the phone. I can't go to their homes and help them. I don't want anyone else to (have this) happen to them because I'm their friend."

Hochanadel said he had not had heard from any Palm Desert officials following the raid.

"Everything's normal. Patients are coming in; county cards are being applied for. Nothing we're doing is illegal."

Silva said he was making no money from the marijuana he grew.

"It's a compassionate thing to do and it guarantees me my own medicine," he said.



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