San Mateo raids stir conflict on medical marijuana

August 30, 2007

Michael Manekin, ANG Newspapers (CA)

REDWOOD CITY — Soon after the Patients Choice Resource Cooperative moved into its new digs in downtown San Mateo, the group received a cease-and-desist letter from the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office.

Patients Choice is a medical marijuana dispensary, one of dozens in the Bay Area providing medicine for patients in possession of doctors' letters prescribing the drug.

But the cooperative was not complying with state and federal law, according to the November 2006 letter, and it was told to close.

On Wednesday, DEA agents and local law enforcement stormed the tiny office and two other medical marijuana dispensaries in the city's downtown and closed them.

The operation, led by the DEA, was the largest Bay Area raid on medical marijuana dispensaries in nearly a year.

Before the raids, the district attorney's office was holding out hope that Patients Choice "would recognize what they were doing as not in compliance with California law, and they would shut down," said San Mateo County District Attorney Jim Fox.

Instead, Patients Choice asked its attorney to send the district attorney's office a letter saying that its business was perfectly in compliance with state law in accordance with Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot measure that state voters approved to allow use of medical marijuana; SB420, a bill passed by the state Legislature in 2004 that allows medical marijuana patients to form their own cooperatives; and People v. Urziceanu, a 2005 appellate court ruling that found that SB420 allows consumer cooperatives, such as Patients Choice, to accept money in exchange for medicine.

Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe considered the letter, reflected on the state's ambiguous legal definition of medical marijuana dispensaries, and made a decision.

"We could have sat here and spent a great deal of taxpayer money in San Mateo County, prosecuting it and going through the appeals, or we could bring the case to the attention of the federal government," Wagstaffe said.

When Matt Kumin, the San Francisco-based attorney for Patients Choice and a consultant to some 80 medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state, learned that federal agents had raided his clients and two additional dispensaries, his reaction was swift.

"The local DA tries to do a prosecution, but it's too difficult. He's got a bitter taste in his mouth, so he calls the feds.

"To me, it's very cowardly," he added. "San Mateo — God, what a conservative place!"

'Very supportive'

Actually, until now San Mateo County has not been conservative when it comes to medical marijuana.

One year after 66 percent of voters passed Prop. 215, the Board of Supervisors approved a trial program for the county hospital to treat terminally ill patients with medical marijuana.

When the state began to issue cards for medical marijuana patients in 2004, the county was one of the first to begin registering qualified residents, said John Conley, the county's public health director.

"The Board of Supervisors has been very supportive of medical marijuana in general," Conley said.

Maybe that's why on Thursday Supervisor Jerry Hill questioned the legitimacy of the raids on the three medical marijuana dispensaries, provided that the businesses were "clearly providing the drug for medical reasons."

A DEA spokesperson would not comment on the issue and said the agency only concerns itself with federal drug laws. The county's Narcotics Task Force and the San Mateo Police Department, which assisted in the raid after cooperating with a nine-month investigation of the dispensaries, refused to comment on the issue, explaining that the search warrants and other documents related to the case were sealed.

The raids turned up 50 pounds of processed marijuana, hashish, cannabis-laced edibles and about $30,000 in cash, according to a statement released by the DEA. No arrests were reported, nor were there reports that the dispensaries were doing anything not permitted by the state's marijuana laws.

No claim of illegal sales?

"The absence of a claim that these dispensaries are operating outside of state law jumps out at me," said Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based medical marijuana advocacy group.

San Mateo police Lt. Mike Brunicardi said Thursday that the police department has "an obligation to the residents of San Mateo" to assist federal agents if they report illegal operations within the city.

But Mirkin said that a collaboration with federal agents "who believe that the most ethical and humane medical marijuana provider is no different than a common drug dealer" is bad for the community.

San Mateo Mayor John Lee said of the raids: "I'm just thrilled to death they did it. We don't need that kind of stuff in our city."

Those two attitudes — passive support and outright disdain — have directed public policy regarding medical marijuana in the state.

According to Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland-based medical marijuana advocacy group, 26 cities and eight counties in California have ordinances allowing and regulating dispensaries.

There are currently 880 medical marijuana patients who have been issued state identification cards through the county's health department and potentially hundreds more who have obtained an authorized medical marijuana prescription from a physician to treat any number of ailments from attention-deficit disorder to arthritis to terminal illnesses, such as cancer and HIV.

One military veteran living in Redwood City is one of the hundreds — potentially thousands — of county residents who will be affected by the raids.

Mike wishes to remain anonymous because, under state law, his prescription allows him to grow a handful of marijuana plants to treat his chronic rheumatoid arthritis. He's afraid the federal government will take away the medication which makes his life bearable.

He has smoked marijuana for decades. In 1969 his doctor at Kaiser Permanante recommended the drug as a tool to treat his condition. But the medical marijuana laws limit the amount he grows, and he has been forced to supplement his supply from medical marijuana dispensaries. Now he doesn't know what he'll do.

"I don't want to drive all over the Bay Area looking for it," he said. "I would rather not have to go through that. I want to be able to know where I can get this stuff when I need it from a safe place — and as convenient as possible would be nice."

Asked whether the county — which officially supports medical marijuana but whose law enforcement agencies continue to oppose the medication — has supported medical marijuana users, his reply was succinct.

"What has the county done for me?" he said. "In my opinion, the county has done nothing."

MediaNews Sacramento Bureau reporter Harrison Sheppard contributed to this story.

Staff writer Michael Manekin can be reached at (650) 348-4331 or by e-mail at

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