Fed's medipot raid priorities are out of whack

August 03, 2007

Thomas Elias, Columnist, San Gabriel Valley Tribune (CA)

There's something almost idiotic about the obviously confused and misguided way in which federal authorities are trying to enforce anti-marijuana laws in California today.

Nothing better illustrates this than the headlines that appeared together in newspapers this spring and summer about numerous pot raids in middle class neighborhoods across the state and those about the second trial of medical marijuana activist Ed Rosenthal of Oakland, an author sometimes known as the "guru of ganja."

In the eastern Los Angeles County suburb of Diamond Bar, authorities burst into a three-bedroom home one day and found the entire house had been converted into a massive indoor marijuana farm with an elaborate irrigation system and overhead lights on timers set up to bypass electric meters that might have alerted the local utility that something odd was going on in the house.

One week earlier, another house, similarly outfitted, was raided. The total take from the two houses came to about

$22 million in street value worth of high-grade pot. No one would ever suggest that this much marijuana was being grown for medicinal uses.

The two houses were among a dozen raided in various parts of the state, with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration guessing the clearly commercial pot-growing operation was run by Chinese-American gangs possibly based in San Francisco's historically crime-ridden Chinatown.

Meanwhile, in a federal courtroom in San Francisco, Rosenthal was on trial for a second time on charges of growing pot for use by a medical dispensary. He wound up innocent of three-fourths of the counts originally filed against him.

Medipot dispensaries and "clubs" have proliferated around the state since passage of California's 1996 Proposition 215, which attempted to allow legal use of marijuana for medical purposes.

But federal authorities never recognized Proposition 215 or the similar laws passed afterward in 14 other states. They insist, correctly, that federal drug laws banning marijuana use in any circumstance other than a U.S. government-sanctioned clinical trial take precedence over any state law.

So they've gone after dozens of medical pot users and their providers. Rosenthal's case is only the most ludicrous waste of federal dollars in this area.

The medipot activist, who had been given official status as a provider under an Oakland city ordinance set up to facilitate Proposition 215 - the will of the voters - was first convicted in federal court in 2003. U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer (brother of Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer) refused to allow the jury in that case to learn of Rosenthal's city officer designation.

An appeals court later threw out that conviction because of a juror's improper phone calls asking advice from an attorney friend during deliberations. But other jurors said they would never have voted to convict if they'd known Rosenthal had been "deputized" by his city.

As federal prosecutors readied Rosenthal's retrial, Breyer threw out five charges they wanted to bring and advised the U.S. Attorney's office not to continue the case, obviously believing it a ludicrous prosecution because Rosenthal could not be given a sentence exceeding the one day he served after the first conviction. But Breyer again would not let the second jury hear of Rosenthal's "deputized" city status.

No one yet knows how much the utterly useless prosecutions of Rosenthal have cost taxpayers or how many resources this trial and others involving genuine medipot growers have diverted from the real problem - commercial cultivators who constantly seem to remain one step and one technique ahead of law enforcement.

Each year, a combination of state, federal and local agents conduct large-scale raids against marijuana farms around the state, from the redwood forests of Humboldt and Mendocino counties to the scrub-covered canyons of the Angeles National Forest in Southern California.

The hauls from the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting are always in the billions of dollars in street value - one reason growers appear to have headed indoors. For sure, the raids on indoor, house-based pot farms in the last few months have destroyed pot worth close to what CAMP found outside last summer and fall.

CAMP officials have sometimes said they find less than 20 percent of the pot grown outside in California. Because they can't detect the indoor farms from helicopters and other aircraft, as they often do outside farms, chances are they are confiscating less than 10 percent of what's grown indoors.

The federal government's priorities are obviously out of whack here: if marijuana is truly destructive, why go after suppliers of cancer patients and others with serious illnesses, even to the extent of conducting an essentially pointless re-prosecution like Rosenthal's? Why not instead use the money, agents, lawyers and equipment for more concerted efforts against large-scale commercial growers whose sales have truly destructive potential?

tdelias@aol.com

Thomas Elias is a syndicated columnist who covers California issues. He lives in Santa Monica.



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