Raided pot 'edibles' trouble advocates

March 17, 2006

John Simerman, Contra Costa Times

A day after federal agents seized thousands of marijuana plants and a booty of pot-laced candy and soda pop in raids on warehouses in Emeryville and Oakland, local medical cannabis advocates reacted coolly -- bitter at another federal plunder on a substance the state deems legal for the sick, but leery of an operation that packaged its products to mimic popular brands of sweets.

The raids on a business called Beyond Bomb netted some 10,000 rooted plants, thousands of tiny plant "clones," as well as boxes of candy and soda with take-off names such as "Pot Tarts," "Toka-Cola," "Stoney Rancher" and "Munchy Way," with labels to match.

Agents also raided the Lafayette home of Kenneth Dean Affolter, 39, who they say ran the business. He and 11 others were taken into custody and charged with of distributing marijuana.

Authorities say they believe the snacks and soda were headed to pot dispensaries and cooperatives across the Bay Area and California, said Special Agent Casey McEnry, a spokeswoman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

"We don't have any information that these products did ultimately end up in the hands of minors, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen," she said. "They look so similar to the real products, it would almost suggest ... that's the way it looks."

Medicinal marijuana advocates pointed to state law and said it was doubtful the THC-laden snacks and soda were aimed at children.

"There's actually a lot of product like that, and dispensaries are the places they can be had. They're the only places that marijuana is retailed in California," said Dale Gieringer, California coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

"They're usually five bucks, three bucks, about like a joint. They're good. A lot of them are very professionally made."

For patients who have trouble smoking, or for whom doctors are concerned about them smoking, "edibles" are the age-old alternative. Droplets and sprays are other options, advocates say.

Gary Ainsworth, who suffers chronic pain, said he likes the taste and medicinal quality of the company's sodas, with names such as "Puffsi" and "Joint," after Pepsi and Jolt. He bought some at an Oakland dispensary but said he doesn't drink it much because of the cost and the long drive from his home in Clovis.

"It works real well for the medication part. But I think it was like $12 for an 8-ounce bottle," he said.

Still, "I'm not hip with the idea of using Jolly Ranchers and (candy) names like that," said Ainsworth. "I think it should be packaged as medicine. If a patient were to have that laying out, somebody might think it's something else -- like, 'have a lollipop.' "

Jeff Jones, executive director of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, said he has the same concerns over confusion, and another one: that one of the raided warehouses was in an area near homes and schools. Jones favors regulating the suppliers like other businesses.

"If there were permits, they would not have been allowed to be in the neighborhood," said Jones. "That's what this calls for, in my mind. Businesses this big need regulations."

The four warehouses -- three in Emeryville, one in Oakland -- each had sophisticated growing equipment and "looked like they had been in operation for quite some time," said McEnry. The workers all wore gray collared work shorts, and white lab coats were found there, according to agents and the criminal complaint released Friday.

Authorities also found more than $150,000 in cash.

It was the second federal raid in a week on a California medical marijuana supplier, after a raid Tuesday of a Desert Hot Springs farmer who supplied a dispensary in Palm Desert. Federal authorities have been emboldened by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer, in a case against an Oakland woman, that they can prosecute patients who keep and grow marijuana in states that allow it for medical use.

The conflict between state and federal law "means that if you are growing large quantities of marijuana for medical use, you're always going to be a target for the federal government, and the piece of the puzzle that's taking the most risk," said Camilla Norman Field, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco.

Under pressure from the federal clash, state lawmakers have tried to clarify the guidelines for medical marijuana and Proposition 215, the medical marijuana law passed in 1996 by 56 percent of California voters.

A 2004 law established a voluntary ID system, recognized the right for patient and caregiver collectives to cultivate pot, and set out restrictions for how much pot patients could keep: up to six mature or 12 immature plants and up to a half-pound of dried, processed marijuana.

The law, however, did not authorize "any individual or group to cultivate or distribute marijuana for profit." The extent to which Affolter may have profited from Beyond Bomb was unclear Friday. Luke Macaulay, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, declined to comment.

One medical marijuana advocate said it appeared the operation was professional, concerned with the quality and cleanliness of the product, and "most likely doing this with the best intentions of it being medical."

Still, Caren Woodson, campaign director of Americans for Safe Access, acknowledged that the packaging is somewhat hard to defend.

"But that is part of waging the debate around medical cannabis, trying to figure out what works with the public and what doesn't work," she said.

"Unfortunately, yes, the names are kid-friendly. But who's to say medical cannabis patients can't have fun, too? It's not just kids who eat Milky Ways."

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