Battles over medical marijuana still stirring across California

October 13, 2010

Peter Hecht, Sacramento Bee


com/California+voters/' class=' lingo_link lingo_link_hidden' style='cursor: pointer; display: inline; font-family: Georgia,"Times New Roman",Times,serif; font-size: 14px; font-weight: 400; font-style: normal;'>California voters now readying to vote on November's Proposition 19 to legalize pot for all adults over 21, battles over medical marijuana may seem like some distant memory.

But in several California communities, intense legal and political fights are continuing over medical marijuana operations that police say are illegal sales and over police raids that medical pot activists say are violations of patients' rights.

The latest showdown is to be played out today in front of a San Jose courthouse, where an advocacy group for medical pot users is protesting police raids on marijuana patients and providers - including a local dispensary called the New Age Healing Collective.

Despite the medicinally soothing name, regional narcotics task force officer Bob Cooke told the San Jose Mercury News that the dispensary operator "wasn't providing care or benefits to patients" and was "nothing more than a glorified pot dealer."

Lauren Vazquez, director of the Silicon Valley chapter of Americans for Safe Access, said the police action - and seizure of 40 pounds of marijuana at the dispensary - was part of a series of recent law enforcement raids focusing on medical marijuana.

The advocacy group's news release for today's "protest & press conference with arrested medical marijuana patients" complains that police posed as "sick patients" to infiltrate medical marijuana businesses.

"In a democratic society, we develop laws that protect our sickest people, not leave them susceptible to police harassment and criminal prosecution," Vazquez said in a statement.

Last summer, law enforcement sweeps in Butte County targeted medical pot dispensaries near Chico, stirring complaints from advocates and intensifying debate over whether pot shops should be permitted in the county.

In a later incident, Nevada County authorities and Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided the farm of John Gross II, seizing more than 2,800 marijuana plants and arresting eight people.

Authorities said Gross was selling marijuana to patients of the P Street Health Center dispensary in Sacramento. In a statement, Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal said: "It appears a substantial profit has been made from this marijuana cultivation via the dispensary."

Gross, now awaiting trial on federal marijuana charges, said in a phone call from the Sacramento County jail Wednesday that he had medical recommendations for "over 1,500" patients and that he believed he was legally growing for them.

"I was following Eric Holder," Gross said of the U.S. attorney general, who announced last year he wouldn't target legitimate medical marijuana operations in states where medical use is legal.

"He said I'm not going to do anything on people who are growing medical marijuana. So I relied on that," Gross said.

Medical marijuana in California has burgeoned into a $1 billion-plus industry. Yet under state law, marijuana providers must operate as non-profit collectives, charging medical pot users only for reimbursement of the costs of services in providing their medicine.

The on-going raids in multiple parts of California suggest that authorities believe a number of people in the medical pot trade are illicitly earning big bucks - and police are on the lookout for profiteers.

In San Diego County, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis argues that medical pot providers overwhelmingly are illegal retail sellers who violate California's medical marijuana law. After a string of defeats in the court room, she just won her first major medical pot conviction.

In a case that drew intense attention from medical marijuana advocates, Navy veteran Jovan Jackson was convicted last month of illegal possession and sales of marijuana for running a dispensary called Answerdam Alternative Care. He was previously been found not guilty in a case stemming from a separate police raid.

Vowing an appeal, Jackson told the San Diego Union-Tribune he felt "pity and anger" that authorities were targeting him and other medical pot providers.

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