15 held in raids on pot stores

July 06, 2006

Jeff MacDonald, San Diego Union Tribune

With dozens of medical marijuana dispensaries doing a brisk business across San Diego County, and many patients showing no signs of serious illness, state and federal prosecutors decided they had seen enough.

Yesterday they conducted a multi-agency sweep that snared what officials said were the worst offenders: dealers capitalizing on California's loosely drawn medical marijuana law to make a profit.

The pot dispensaries have become “magnets for crime in San Diego,” Police Chief William Lansdowne said. The operators “have taken the compassionate use of marijuana and convoluted it into a million-dollar business.”

Drug agents showed up at dispensaries in La Jolla, Ocean Beach, North Park and elsewhere across the city, detaining patients, running warrant checks on employees and arresting previously identified dispensary owners.

Of the 15 people arrested, six face federal charges related to a grand jury indictment handed down late Wednesday, and 10 were charged by county prosecutors. One suspect, John Sullivan, 38, of San Diego, faces both federal and state charges.

“Their motive was not to better society,” U.S. Attorney Carol Lam said at a news conference announcing the arrests. “But rather to make a profit by breaking the law.”

Prosecutors took the unusual step of filing official complaints with the California Medical Board against four physicians who they said sell an inordinate number of recommendations for medical marijuana.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that doctors cannot be targeted for recommending that their patients use marijuana.

The raids followed a December sweep by the same joint-agency narcotics task force. In that sweep, agents confiscated equipment and thousands of patient records but made no arrests.

Investigators said much of the information seized then helped form the case that unfolded with Wednesday's grand jury indictments and yesterday's raids.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said her office decided not to target legitimate medical marijuana patients, who are protected under state law but remain vulnerable to prosecution under federal drug statutes.

Rather, she said, her office was singling out dispensaries that indiscriminately sell marijuana to anyone who can produce a physician's recommendation.

“We support (medical marijuana) wholeheartedly, but Proposition 215 is being severely abused,” Dumanis said. “It's just really gotten out of hand. . . . Those of us in law enforcement have tolerated it for too long.”

Many dispensaries charge up to $80 for an eighth-ounce of the highest grade marijuana and sell marijuana-laced candy bars and lollipops and other products that prosecutors say are attractive to children.

The prosecutors said dispensary operators make thousands of dollars a day, selling largely to young people with no apparent medical conditions.

Undercover agents said they witnessed people buying marijuana time and again and then sharing it with friends just outside.

Patient records confiscated during the December raids showed that 72 percent of patients were between 17 and 40 years old, federal prosecutors said.

Nearly 63 percent of caregivers, who under state law can obtain marijuana for people too sick to get it for themselves, were between 18 and 30.

The seized records also showed that barely 2 percent of patients reported having AIDS, glaucoma or cancer. Instead, almost 98 percent used marijuana to relieve muscle spasms, insomnia, back and neck pain, headaches and other less-serious ailments.

The yearlong investigation showed that some dispensaries had sales gimmicks such as “Free Doobie Monday” and discounts for frequent customers. Many of the dispensaries identified by investigators were not part of yesterday's raid, but Dumanis put them squarely on notice.

“We've raided some of you today,” she said. “We'll raid the rest of you if you do not cease and desist. We'll raid you again and again.”

News of the raids spread quickly across the city and state. Most of the storefront dispensaries closed quickly. “Mobile dispensaries” or delivery services stopped answering their telephones and their operators were unavailable for interviews.

Internet message boards sizzled with news and rumors about the sweeps.

One posting said, “I never knew that compassion was illegal.” Another appeared to support the action: “Hopefully this is just another set of raids to get rid of the fake dispensaries.”

San Diego County has been at the forefront of the medical marijuana movement for several years.

In 2003, San Diego became the largest city in the nation to adopt guidelines for sick and dying patients who grow and use the drug, acts that were made legal when California voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996.

But the county Board of Supervisors sued the state earlier this year to try to overturn the law, even though a majority of the county's voters supported the initiative. Public officials in San Bernardino and Merced counties have joined the suit, which is pending in state court.

The selling of marijuana in storefronts not only concerns law enforcement and political leaders, but has also divided medical marijuana activists, many of whom argue that the storefronts do more harm than good.

Jerry Meier, chairman of the volunteer task force that drafted San Diego's medical marijuana guidelines, said dispensaries have been a problem since they began setting up shop in large numbers about two years ago.

“I see a lot of the dispensaries as nothing more than profiteers who are taking advantage of the work the task force did,” Meier said. “The task force has always said the dispensaries at the very least should have some sort of regulation.”

But Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project, a San Francisco advocacy group, said authorities should not punish all dispensaries.

“Many patients are not in a position to grow and have no person that can act as a caregiver,” he said. “There's no reason someone shouldn't be able to go to a reliable source and buy their medicine like they would with any prescription or over-the-counter drug.”

Only one of the suspects arrested by federal agents – Sullivan – actually ran dispensaries.

The other five men were accused of one count each of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and conspiracy to manufacture marijuana. They were Wayne Hudson, 42; Christopher Larkin, 34; Ross McManus, 39; and Michael Ragin, 34, all of San Diego; and Scott Wright, 40, of La Mesa.

If convicted, they could face up to 40 years in prison.

County prosecutors charged Sullivan and nine others: Ahmad Abdul-Jaiil, 21; Anthony Armine, 33; Aaron Ballenger, 21; William Burd, 29; Stephen Harding, 37; Christopher Jessie, 22; Jason Kaufmann, 30; Raphael Mijares, 35; and Daniel Stansfield, 30, all of San Diego.

Those defendants face charges of selling marijuana and possession for sale, with penalties ranging up to four years in state prison.

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