While the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies went on high anti-terrorist alert Tuesday, the DEA in San Francisco had better things to do. In predawn raids across the Bay Area, DEA agents hit the 6th Street Harm Reduction Center, the home and offices of long-time High Times and Cannabis Culture cultivation columnist Ed Rosenthal, and properties where suspected medical marijuana grow ops were allegedly taking place. By the time DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson arrived at the downtown Commonwealth Club for a speech that evening, he was greeted by several hundred angry demonstrators, including several members of the city's Board of Supervisors as well as San Francisco's District Attorney, demanding that the raids cease and chanting "DEA Go Away!" Hutchinson fared no better inside, where his speech about the war on drugs was greeted with heckling, boos and cat-calls.
"We are just outraged," said Gina Palencar of Americans for Medical Rights, the organization that helped bring Proposition 215, the California medical marijuana initiative, into the law books. "We've been saying since the crackdown on the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center that it is an obnoxious misuse of federal law enforcement resources to target our seriously ill and wounded when we have other high national priorities," she told DRCNet. "We continue to be shocked by Asa Hutchinson's boldness and the cruelty with which his men come to California and rub their anti-medical marijuana agenda in the faces of Californians who have already decided on this issue. Today's events show how out of touch and out of control the DEA is."
Palencar was hardly alone in her outrage. San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who attended the Tuesday protest, told the Oakland Tribune the raids made him "furious," while Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano, yelling through a bullhorn to the angry crowd on the street, called the DEA "an obnoxious, grandstanding, macho agency."
Arrested in the raids were 6th Street current and former operators Richard Watts and Kenneth Hayes, Rosenthal, and another alleged medical marijuana grower, James Halloran of Oakland. All are charged with cultivation of marijuana and face mandatory minimum federal prison sentences of at least five years. Halloran, who was charged with growing more than 1,000 plants, faces a possible life sentence. Hayes, who was arrested in Vancouver, was released on his own recognizance by Canadian authorities and may seek asylum there. Rosenthal was released after posting a $500,000 bond, and Watts and Halloran remained jailed at press time.
Despite early reports that widespread raids were occurring in the Bay Area, marking a dramatic escalation of the federal government's war against medical marijuana in the states, the 6th Street club raids appear to have resulted from an ongoing DEA marijuana smuggling investigation. In documents filed in federal court, the DEA contended it was targeting a marijuana pipeline running from British Columbia to California.
"This is your standard drug bust scenario," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML (http://www.canorml.org). "They had busted a smuggling operation, got someone to become an informant, and that led them to the medical marijuana club," he told DRCNet. "This was not like the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center case, where they went after people trying to grow and provide marijuana legally, this grew out of an ongoing criminal investigation."
(The raiders were also in possession of a letter from another area medical marijuana provider accusing 6th Street of nefarious doings. See the accompanying article below.)
That was not the scenario he originally feared, said Gieringer. "What I most feared was a sweeping raid all across the Bay Area. We know they have agents with medical marijuana patient cards. All they have to do is buy some pot in a controlled buy and that's enough to file charges against every club. That doesn't seem to be the case here. This is not an escalation, but a continuation of their war on medical marijuana," he said.
Chris Conrad, a certified expert witness on cannabis issues in California, told DRCNet he hoped the cases would go to trial. "If they have the trial here, they will lose," said Conrad. "It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the feds to prevent the jury from realizing these are medical marijuana cases, as they have done in the past. In this case, it was one medical marijuana person turning in others, there were informants or agents who got phony recommendations, and don't forget the jury will be walking past protesters in the street. I don't see how the government can keep the medical marijuana issue out of any trial arising from this bust," he said.
Conrad added that it was "too bad" that federal prosecutors had not brought the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center and its director, Scott Imler, to trial. "If things had moved quickly and we won an acquittal, the DEA would be less likely to do more raids. But as long as they're busting clubs and shutting them down, patients will be suffering."
Conrad, who attended Hutchinson's speech, said he was "shocked, offended, but a little bit hopeful. I was shocked that Hutchinson says he can't reschedule marijuana, when he is the one who can do so, and I was shocked by his lack of familiarity with the studies on medicinal marijuana. I was offended by his talking about dialogue but refusing to listen to anyone, and I was offended by his talking about dialogue when his troops are out there the same day arresting health providers," said Conrad. "But I am hopeful because Hutchinson had no choice but to confront the overwhelming unpopularity of his policies."
Americans for Medical Rights' Palencar is looking for that unpopularity to be translated into stronger action by state and local officials to uphold the California medical marijuana law. "We've seen the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and District Attorney coming out and telling the federal government to get out of town and leave the cannabis clubs alone," she said. "We'd like to see more of that from state officials. It is time to end the hypocrisy. We have electoral majorities in all the states with medical marijuana. It is time for the states to step up and defend the rights of patients and providers."
(Visit http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v02.n238.a08.html for an extensive, continually updated archive of relevant reports and links. Visit http://sf.indymedia.org for on-the-scene reporting and photographs. The Democracy Now radio show ran stories on the raids as well as Tulia and the New York Rockefeller Drug laws. Summaries, links and the complete audio can be accessed at http://www.webactive.com/pacifica/demnow/dn20020213.html online.)