DEA agents raid Culver City medical marijuana dispensary

July 31, 2008

Tami Abdollah, Los Angeles Times

Federal agents raided a Culver City medical marijuana dispensary where they spent more than four hours this afternoon, serving a search warrant that resulted in no arrests but left the shop in disarray.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents arrived about noon at Organica Collective in the 13400 block of Washington Boulevard, said Sarah Pullen, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles office of the agency.



    * Medical marijuana raid
      Photos: Medical marijuana raid

"Marijuana remains a controlled substance, and it is illegal under federal law to possess, dispense or cultivate marijuana in any form," Pullen said of the purpose of the raid.

The federal operation came on the same day an appellate court in San Diego ruled that federal law does not preempt the state's law allowing the use of medical marijuana -- a ruling touted by supporters of California's medical marijuana law as a significant win.

At the dispensary agents left behind trash, counters strewn with open and empty glass jars, piles of receipts thrown on the ground, upturned couch cushions, bits of marijuana on the edges of counters and an ATM with its doors torn open and emptied.

In the residents' rooms a safe was cut open, dresser drawers pulled open, and rumpled clothes and knickknacks thrown on the ground. An outdoor vegetable garden had plants uprooted, along with marijuana plants removed by the agents.

Brian V. Birbiglia, 35, sat handcuffed next to DEA agents on a tattered couch outside the dispensary for more than four hours during the raid. Next to the couch sat a box marked "DEA evidence," about a dozen black trash bags and two Trader Joe's paper bags. Some agents wore protective chest gear, black sunglasses and guns in leg holsters.

After the raid was over and he was released, Birbiglia was visibly enraged. An employee and friend of the dispensary's owner, Jeff Joseph, Birbiglia said he is a disabled former Marine who has a prescription to smoke marijuana for a foot injury.

"We follow the law," he yelled, his face red and his eyes teary. "We might as well have just got robbed by a bunch of thugs downtown."

Birbiglia found a remaining bud of marijuana that agents had missed, and he popped it into a pipe to smoke.

"They forgot this, and I'm going to smoke it," he said.

Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl was called to the scene by the owner and arrived several hours after the raid began. Rosendahl, standing outside the gate to the store's parking lot, said he was frustrated that there was nothing he could do to intervene. The dispensary straddles the boundary between Los Angeles and Culver City, Rosendahl said. Culver City police assisted federal agents at the scene.

"This is an action with the federal government, which is sad," Rosendahl said, "because these laws need to be revisited in Washington, especially the medical marijuana law. We're incarcerating people by the tens of thousands, we're destroying peoples' lives, and people who have a medical marijuana legitimacy are caught in the middle. It's a problem we need to resolve. This conflict is totally unacceptable."

Clyde Carey, 50, of Marina del Rey was at the store Friday visiting a friend when agents burst in through the locked front door, he said.

"We heard some noise outside, and then the door literally burst in, and the DEA came in in full combat gear, told everybody to get on the floor and put their hands behind their heads," Carey said. "It was like, literally, an episode of "24," when they bust in on a terrorist cell."

Carey, who said he has multiple sclerosis and has been a dispensary customer since February, stood across the street near a Starbucks with about half a dozen people who had witnessed the raid, watching agents walk in and out.

He said DEA agents searched and cuffed the roughly 25 people inside the building, which also includes four upstairs rooms. Then agents started searching the premises, removing computers, medicine and money, and using a steel cylinder battering ram to get into the upstairs bedrooms, Carey said.

Joseph, the owner, said he was at the bank when an employee called to warn him of the raid.

"I'm a fugitive at the moment," he said. Joseph said he had been speaking with his attorney but would not comment on the amount of marijuana lost. "It's going to be very expensive," he said, adding that he had "paid my taxes, every quarter since last year; I've paid my taxes."

The search warrant signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Victor B. Kenton authorized the seizure of "controlled substances, including marijuana; derivatives thereof, and edible products containing marijuana . . . receipts, notes, ledgers, records . . . reflecting the proceeds of those activities . . . electronic equipment . . . photographs, negatives, videotapes, films, addresses and/or telephone books . . . records, documents, programs, applications. . . ."

On a Web forum for medical marijuana users, news of the raid was posted shortly after 1 p.m. with a call for protesters to "please go down with signs and friends to show your support!"

The dispensary’s MySpace page says it offers "the best of Los Angeles' medical cannabis, as well as several different types of clones. New patients receive a free gift with their first purchase! We are open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, with free secure parking and friendly vibes!"

In addition, the section titled "Who I'd like to meet" solicits people without a "medical recommendation card" for marijuana.

"Suffer from migraines, cancer, glaucoma, depression, arthritis, nausea, anorexia, AIDS, insomnia, chronic pain or any other disorders?" the website says. "Medicinal marijuana might be for you! Come meet with our doctor and see if you qualify."

tami.abdollah@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jia-Rui Chong contributed to this report.


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