Marijuana seized, warnings given; nobody arrested

July 21, 2006

Jeff McDonald, San Diego Union-Tribune

Federal agents paid “courtesy visits” to nine or 10 San Diego medical marijuana dispensaries yesterday, warning operators that they consider the shops illegal.

No arrests were made, although agents seized an undetermined amount of marijuana. Agents made it clear that the government will no longer tolerate retail storefronts selling pot.

“Those dispensaries are operating in violation of state and federal law,” said Dan Simmons, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent. “These were courtesy visits to remind the dispensaries that are still open that they're operating illegally.”

Medical marijuana activists painted a different picture of what happened.

According to Steph Sherer, executive director of the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, drug agents barged into the dispensaries and threatened to arrest employees and patients before seizing whatever marijuana they could find.

“They're basically going in and taking everything,” Sherer said. “They said, 'Shut down or we're going to come back and arrest you.' ”

State law permits medical marijuana dispensaries but leaves it up to local municipalities to determine where they are allowed. Sherer's organization has repeatedly called on elected officials to regulate dispensaries rather than raid them.

Two weeks ago, local law enforcement agencies and federal drug agents raided some marijuana dispensaries and made 15 arrests. Those criminal cases are pending in federal and state courts.

After the July 7 raid, U.S. Attorney Carol Lam and San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis warned all dispensaries to shut down or face closure and arrest of the operators.

The dispensaries that were warned yesterday apparently were not part of the sweep two weeks ago. Some of the shops closed before agents arrived. Marijuana was seized at only two shops, Simmons said.

The approach by law enforcement officers yesterday was markedly different than during earlier raids, when agents swarmed inside dispensaries with flak jackets and automatic rifles, handcuffing everyone and seizing computers, patient records and other items.

It was deliberately lower-key, Simmons said. “It was not a confrontational thing.”

Medical marijuana has vexed elected officials since voters in California approved an initiative 10 years ago allowing patients with a physician's recommendation to grow and smoke the drug to relieve symptoms.

The original law was deliberately vague. Follow-up legislation that went into effect in 2004 allows marijuana dispensaries. Some California communities have adopted regulations dictating where they can be, but officials in San Diego have developed no such ordinance.

Under federal law, marijuana is illegal under any circumstance.

San Diego County has become a national testing ground for medical marijuana laws, which have now been adopted in 11 states.

County supervisors sued the state of California earlier this year to try and overturn the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 and the bill permitting retail sales to qualified patients.

The case is pending in state court.


Jeff McDonald: (619) 542-4585;

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