Feds digging deep in pot-dispensary blitz

July 18, 2007

David Olson, Press Enterprise (CA)

Tuesday's raid on a marijuana dispensary in Corona is part of broader law-enforcement efforts to shut down medical-pot outlets throughout Southern California.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration earlier this month threatened to seize the property of about 150 Los Angeles County landlords unless they stopped renting to marijuana dispensaries.

Building owners in other counties may be targeted next, said Special Agent Sarah Pullen, of the DEA's Los Angeles office, which oversees Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The landlords are breaking federal law, she said.

"Anyone who owns property where ongoing criminal activity -- whether it's a crack house or a marijuana dispensary -- takes place are possibly subject to asset forfeiture," Pullen said.

The Corona raid and arrest of its operator follows the closure of pot dispensaries in Riverside and Norco earlier this year. Marijuana-patient advocates and law-enforcement officials said they believe there are now no more than three marijuana dispensaries remaining in the Inland area, none outside the Coachella Valley.

State and Federal Laws

Dispensaries distribute marijuana to people who have a doctor's recommendation to use the drug to relieve pain from cancer, AIDS-related complications, multiple sclerosis and other diseases. California voters legalized marijuana for medical use in 1996.

But federal law prohibits possession of marijuana for any reason, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that medical-marijuana outlets and patients can be prosecuted under federal law.

The only reason more marijuana dispensaries have not been shut down is that federal officials don't have the resources to investigate every violation, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

Federal prosecutors and the DEA must amass enough evidence to convince a judge to grant a search warrant, he said.

The Corona dispensary, Healing Nations Collective, was targeted in part because of the large amount of marijuana that it sold, Pullen said. Healing Nations had sales of more than $1.2 million between July 2006 -- when it opened -- through March 2007.

"Just like with other drug traffickers, we concentrate on [operators] that have the most impact in the community," she said.

The DEA is aware of at least 300 marijuana dispensaries in the seven central and Southern California counties that it covers, Pullen said.

Corona Charges

A federal indictment charges Healing Nations operator Ronald Naulls with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana, and of causing others to illegally sell marijuana. Naulls was transferred Wednesday from the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside into federal custody, Sheriff's Department officials said.

Former Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask last year issued a report stating that dispensaries in the county are illegal because they violate federal law; his successor, Rod Pacheco, agrees, district attorney spokeswoman Ingrid Wyatt said. The district attorney's office has prosecuted dispensaries that allegedly violate state law, she said.

San Bernardino County is part of a lawsuit challenging the state medical-marijuana law. Riverside County tried to join the suit too late.

San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert said he is unaware of any pot dispensary operating in the county.

Impact on Patients

With the Corona dispensary closed, medical-marijuana patients must now travel to the Coachella Valley or Los Angeles to get pot, said Summer Glenney, Inland Empire field coordinator for the Patient Advocacy Network, which assists medical-marijuana patients. Glenney said she was a Healing Nations patient.

"There are so many patients who are not going to make it out to LA or Palm Springs," she said. "They're not physically able to do so."

Glenney said she supports state and local crackdowns on any dispensary that violates state marijuana laws that limit pot use to people with a doctor's permission. Such marijuana outlets taint dispensaries that serve only people with legitimate medical needs, she said.

A Palm Desert dispensary will be allowed to operate only until September, when its lease expires, Palm Desert City Attorney David Erwin said. Palm Desert outlawed marijuana dispensaries in May.

A man who answered the phone at the dispensary, CannaHelp, declined to say whether the dispensary plans to move and if it does, whether it hopes to locate elsewhere in Riverside County.

The owner and two employees of CannaHelp are facing felony drug charges. City officials have said that undercover officials were able to buy marijuana from the dispensary without proper credentials.

Wyatt and Palm Springs officials said they did not know if the two pot dispensaries that had operated in Palm Springs are still open. Glenney said she believed at least one was still operating.

One of the dispensaries, Palm Springs Caregivers, was raided twice last fall after authorities said a man connected with the dispensary left food containing marijuana as a tip for a Palm Springs hotel employee. There was no answer Wednesday at the Caregivers phone number.

Riverside police raided a dispensary in May for allegedly violating state medical-marijuana regulations. The outlet was shut down.

In March, a Riverside County Superior Court judge shut down a Norco dispensary after granting a city injunction against the outlet.

Staff writer Duane Gang contributed to this report.

Reach David Olson at 951-368-9462or dolson@PE.com

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