DEA raids pot collective's sites, arrests 15

October 03, 2006

Josh Richman, ANG Newspapers

Federal agents raided several Bay Area sites and arrested 15 people Tuesday morning to shut down what supporters called a medical marijuana cooperative but what federal officials said was a drug-dealing operation.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided the administrative office of New Remedies Cooperative, formerly known as Compassionate Caregivers -- in downtown Oakland, its Mission Street dispensary in San Francisco, and what apparently was its marijuana-growing operation in a warehouse on the edge of San Francisco's Potrero Hill district.

Officers seized more than 12,000 marijuana plants, computers, four vehicles, including a Porsche Carrera convertible, and $125,000 and three bank accounts belonging to New Remedies, Potent Employment Solutions LLC.

Operator Sparky Rose, 36, of San Francisco was arrested Tuesday, as were Ben Blair, 31, of San Pablo; James Daley, 56, and Sean Anderson, 22, both of San Francisco; Kevin Ellis, 28, and Jason Matthewson, 29, both of Pinole; Irene Matsuoka, 27, of Crockett; Alfaro Munoz-Bebullida, 33, and Steven Navarro, 35, both of Richmond; Johnny Seto, 32, Mark Miller, 53, and Tracy Smith, 32, all of Alameda; Mistalee Chiame Wang, 25, and Jaime Perreira, 26, both of San Leandro; and Amber Froiness, 26, of Berkeley.

All are scheduled to appear in federal court today.

A California law approved by voters a decade ago permits medical use of marijuana, but federal law still bans the drug entirely. Federal officials implied Tuesday this operation was not just medical.

"Federal drug laws prohibit the cultivation and sale of marijuana. Anyone who breaks these laws to run a lucrative drug trade, buy fancy cars, boost their bank accounts and exploit vulnerable citizens is not compassionate, they're criminal," DEA Special Agent in Charge Javier Pena said in a news release.

"Make no mistake -- these defendants were in the business of dealing drugs, and DEA is in the business of arresting drug dealers and removing them from our communities."

This cooperative's predecessor, Compassionate Caregivers, shuttered its Oakland headquarters and six other locations -- in San Leandro, San Francisco, Bakersfield, West Hollywood, San Diego and Ukiah -- last year after Los Angeles police raided the West Hollywood site, arrested several people and seized the company's assets.

Rose at the time told MediaNews that his were among the most professionally run medical-marijuana dispensaries around.

"Our employees are well-versed in the law. .... . . You have to make sure you do it the right way. You have to make sure your employees are educated. .... . . We're here to service our patients, first and foremost."

Compassionate Caregivers reopened its Oakland dispensary within weeks but shut it down for good in September 2005 after the city refused to renew its permit, citing building code violations.

Oakland-based medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, whose staff members witnessed Tuesday's Oakland raid, put out an Internet call for activists to go watch the San Francisco actions as well.

Witnesses at the Mission Street dispensary reported it was raided by a few dozen Drug Enforcement Administration agents clad in tactical gear.

"There's a major California push from the federal government going on right now, it would seem," said Americans for Safe Access spokesman William Dolphin, noting DEA raids last week in Modesto and Granada Hills.

"It's bizarre that we have science moving so strongly in one direction and the DEA fighting tooth and nail ... to shore up prohibition."

DEA agents and local police raided Modesto's California Healthcare Collective and seven homes Sept. 27, seizing about 60 pounds of marijuana, 34 pounds of baked goods containing the drug, cash, vehicles, computers and two handguns.

The collective's two proprietors were arrested, as were two employees.

"These (Modesto) defendants ran a wide-scale, and highly profitable, narcotics trafficking operation that was not just illegal under federal law, but California's Proposition 215 as well," said U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott of Sacramento.

Added Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden: "Proposition 215 never allowed for large marijuana distribution centers to sell marijuana for profit. Marijuana distribution centers are in clear violation of federal law and will not be tolerated in Modesto.''

Four people were taken into custody Sept. 28 after Southern California police and federal agents raided the North Valley Discount Caregivers dispensary in Granada Hills.

Two were released later that day; the other two remained in custody on state charges.

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