Sacramento marijuana dispensary latest target of federal crackdown

June 11, 2012

Ed Fletcher, Sacramento Bee

The federal war on medical marijuana came to Sacramento again Monday with the early morning raid of a dispensary hailed by at least one city councilman as an ideal player.

Federal Drug Enforcement Agency officials would say little about Monday's raid other than to confirm they had executed a search warrant on El Camino Wellness Center near El Camino Avenue and Interstate 80.

El Camino Wellness was one of four dispensaries that had gone through the city's stringent vetting process and is a state and locally sanctioned nonprofit, said Max Del Real, a cannabis industry lobbyist working for El Camino Wellness.

Del Real said the center has great security, is a good neighbor and doesn't generate complaints.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner last November, Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn went to bat for El Camino Wellness, calling the dispensary a leader in the city's effort to regulate such centers and saying he was impressed with its "overall level of compassion and professionalism."

Sacramento is one of at least eight cities that have enacted ordinances to tax and regulate local medical marijuana businesses.

But in October – saying medical marijuana operations in California had been "hijacked by profiteers" – the state's four U.S. attorneys announced a crackdown against "the illegal operations of the commercial marijuana industry in California."

Since then, DEA agents have carried out a number of raids on medical marijuana concerns from Los Angeles to Oakland and Mendocino County. In the Sacramento area, federal authorities filed marijuana distribution charges against operators of the R & R Wellness Collective in south Sacramento in October and raided another location, the MediZen Collective, on Northgate Boulevard. Several other Sacramento dispensaries received letters threatening federal seizures of the properties.

On Monday, Del Real called the 6 a.m. searches of El Camino Wellness and its owner's residence a raid on Sacramento's medical marijuana industry. "If the feds can go after El Camino Wellness – guys that were doing it right – they can go after anyone," he said.

Medical marijuana advocates say the raid underscores the need for state laws to tax and regulate the industry.

"It's time for the locals and the feds to accept medical marijuana," said Rich Miller, one of a dozen medical marijuana advocates who assembled outside the shuttered El Camino Wellness on Monday. "The feds need to back off and let the state regulate."

Assembly Bill 2312 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, which is aimed at providing rules for the industry, recently cleared the Assembly and is awaiting a Senate hearing.

"The 80 percent of us Californians who support medical cannabis are disappointed (in the raids) and want some backing from the (Obama) administration to end this reefer madness," Ammiano said in an emailed statement.

Much of the concern among advocates Monday was for the patients. Car by car, several pulled up Monday disappointed to see a closed gate at El Camino Wellness and sign-wielding advocates outside.

One older man, speaking through a tube and driven by a younger man, asked what was going on. Apparently seeing someone else in need, a male demonstrator handed the man a small amount of marijuana.

"It's the same question over and over, 'Where am I going to get my medicine?' " said Courtney Sheats, a regional coordinator for Americans for Safe Access.

She and other advocates fear that people with legitimate medical needs will be forced to purchase marijuana on the black market.

"The message (the feds) are sending," said Sheats, "is the goal is to take away safe access to people's medicine."

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