DEA, police serve search warrant at local marijuana dispensary

K Kaufmann and Marie McCain, The Desert Sun

A medical marijuana-laced “tip” left for an employee at Palm Springs’ Spa Resort & Casino in September ended with a search-and-seizure raid on a Palm Springs medical marijuana dispensary on Wednesday.

Agents from the Palm Springs Narcotics Task Force, an arm of the U.S. Drug En forcement Administration, served a search warrant on the Palm Springs Caregivers dis pensary located at 2001 N. Palm Canyon Drive.

The agents found and seized “a substantial quantity of marijuana and marijuana prod ucts,” said Sarah Pullen, public information officer for the DEA. “They also seized an amount of U.S. currency.”

The raid closed the dispensary and left many clients temporarily without a safe source for the drug.

“The dispensary, you can count on it being there. You can’t count on people on the street,” said Johnny Ortiz of Desert Hot Springs, a client at Palm Springs Caregivers who had previously bought the drug from illegal street dealers.

Toting his doctor’s recommendation, Ortiz said he may go to one of the Coachella Valley’s other dispensaries — one in Palm Springs and one in Palm Desert — or back to the street.

Under California’s medical marijuana laws, first passed in 1996, qualified patients with a doctor’s recommendation may legally use the drug. The state law conflicts with a federal ban on any use, cultivation or distribution of marijuana.

Wednesday’s search was triggered by an in cident in September, when Joshua Aleck of Valencia — who, according to the search warranta release from the Palm Springs Police Department “has a working relationship” with the dispensary — was at the Spa Resort and allegedly left edible items containing marijuana as a “tip” for a hotel employee.

Aleck was at the dispensary at the time of the search and may be an employee, Pullen said. He may also be the brother of the dis pensary’s owner, she said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, no arrests had been made, but the investigation was con tinuing, said Sgt. Mitch Spike of the Palm Springs Police Department, which also took part in the search.
Efforts to contact representatives of Palm Springs Caregivers on Wednesday were un successful.

The raid added to ongoing uncertainties for medical marijuana users and dispensaries in the Coachella Valley.

Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask last month issued an white paper,opinion arguingstating that dispensaries are illegal under both federal and state law.

The county Board of Supervisors followed suit last week when theyit rejected an ordinance — the result of months of work between county staffers and medical marijuana advocates — to permit dispensaries in unincorporated ar eas such as Bermuda Dunes and Sky Valley.

The board passed a dispensary ban Tuesday.

Trask was aware of the Palm Springs investigation, said Ingrid Wyatt, a spokeswom an for Trask’s office.

“We were involved in the search warrant in an advisory capacity,” Wyatt said. “We’re there to review the language of the search warrant and make sure everything that is going to be searched is a legal search.”

Wyatt said she could not comment on whether Trask would be filingfile charges against the dispensary or Aleck in the case until the DEA completes its investigation.

But she said the county would not be targeting individual patients.

“We’re not going to go after the suffering cancer patient; we aren't that insensitive,” Wyatt said. “We’re concerned about these dispensaries that disguise themselves as they’re selling marijuana illegally.”

Jitters about the raid and county policy temporarily closed down Palm Springs’ other dis pensary, the Collective Apothecary of Palm Springs, or CAPS, and CannaHelp, the dis pensary in Palm Desert.

CannaHelp reopened Wednesday afternoon, and owner Stacy Hochanadel said the dispensary was seeing many Palm Springs pa tients.

“A lot of patients were upset,” Hochanadel said. “They’re a little scared and hoping that we’re going to be here tomorrow.”

Calls to CAPS were not returned.

The impact on dispensary ordinances cur rently under consideration in Palm Springs and Palm Desert are another concern.

The Palm Springs Medical Marijuana Task Force is scheduled to meet Friday to work on a draft law that it put on hold after publication of Trask’s white paperopinion.

Task force member Joy Meredith, who is president of Palm Springs’ Main Street downtown business association of downtown businesses, said neither the raid nor county actions should affect the city.

“It depends on how much courage the decision-makers have,” she said.