Medical cannabis suspects hit with federal charges

July 01, 2004

Henry K. Lee, San Francisco Chronicle

Four suspects were charged in federal court Thursday with cultivating about 4,000 marijuana plants in a West Oakland warehouse that supporters say was a legitimate operation for medical cannabis.

The case is the latest to pit advocates of medicinal marijuana against federal authorities who say marijuana -- in any amount and for any purposes -- is illegal under the nation's laws.

The suspects -- Jesse Nieblas, 32, of Alameda; Jacek Mroz, 27, of Oakland; Heleno Dearaujo and Celeste Angello -- appeared before U.S.

Magistrate Maria-Elena James in San Francisco on two charges each of marijuana cultivation for allegedly growing 4,000 marijuana plants in a nondescript warehouse at 2638 Market St.

The defendants and others are being investigated by the California Highway Patrol, which made the arrests Wednesday, and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, outraging medicinal marijuana advocates who say the four helped supply medical cannabis to one of three dispensaries backed by the city of Oakland.

'The warehouse was definitely medical,' said Angel Raich, 38, an Oakland woman who uses marijuana with her doctor's approval to treat pain, nausea and seizures associated with a brain tumor and a wasting syndrome.

'The medicinal marijuana was being provided to many, many patients. In my opinion (investigators) went around state and city law and went directly to the DEA. I think the CHP was acting kind of capricious,' Raich said Thursday, three days after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the Bush administration's appeal of a ruling that protects marijuana patients in California from federal prosecution. Raich is a plaintiff in the case.

But authorities said the DEA was called in because of the number of marijuana plants at the warehouse. The building had no permits to grow medical marijuana under Proposition 215, the state initiative approved by voters in 1996 that legalized medicinal cannabis with a doctor's recommendation, officials said.

'There is absolutely nothing we have seen thus far to indicate anything but a criminal enterprise,' said CHP Lt. Rob Patrick.

Federal law prevails anyway when it comes to marijuana, said DEA spokesman Richard Meyer. 'They can claim all they want -- they have a chance in court. Marijuana is completely illegal.'

Attorney General Bill Lockyer weighed into the controversy, saying, 'Federal law treats marijuana the same as heroin,' he said. 'This makes no sense.'

In the last several weeks, the CHP received complaints from neighbors of a 'strong odor of marijuana' coming from the warehouse, DEA Special Agent Adam Zirkelbach wrote in an affidavit. CHP officers then began surveillance of the building Wednesday and stopped a white truck as it left the premises, officials said.

Nieblas, the driver, claimed the truck contained 'cafe supplies,' but CHP Sgt. Joe Nardil smelled marijuana in the back of the vehicle, the affidavit said. After receiving permission to open the tailgate, officers found 503 marijuana plants, five water pumps and two garbage bags filled with marijuana leaves and freshly cut green stalks, but no cafe supplies, Zirkelbach wrote.

Officers later stopped a Ford Mustang driven by Mroz and detained Dearaujo and Angello after the two tried to run away, authorities said. Police were told the warehouse was for a construction firm but instead found about 4, 000 plants inside worth as much as $5 million, Patrick said.

Later Wednesday, authorities searched homes in Lafayette, Pleasant Hill and Alameda and recovered several weapons, Patrick said. The owner of the warehouse, Thomas Grossi, is being investigated to determine his 'level of involvement' in the case but has not been charged, Patrick said.

Mroz's father, Michael, told The Chronicle Thursday that his son was a security guard at the warehouse. 'He don't grow nothing,' Michael Mroz said. 'I'm very upset.'

But Jacek Mroz told investigators that he was 'hired to water and tend to the marijuana plants,' the affidavit said. Nieblas delivered plants twice a week but said 'he had the legal right to do so,' authorities said. Dearaujo and Angello served as trimmers, and Angello said she had previously worked as a 'bud tender' and cashier by the Compassionate Caregivers Club, the affidavit said.

The case underscores the debate as to whether medicinal marijuana can be grown without fear of prosecution, said Joe DeVries, a supporter of an initiative that would tax and regulate marijuana sellers in Oakland.

'Where do they think it comes from -- that it appears out of mid-air? That's the big gray area,' DeVries said.



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