A series of raids and arrests, an aggressive Justice Department and an unsympathetic federal judge are giving California medical marijuana activists a bad case of nerves these days. Prominent members of the movement are warning of imminent raids and are preparing to act to either avert or protest them.
"I'm expecting widespread raids," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML (http://www.canorml.org). "I wouldn't be surprised to see a sweep of all the clubs the DEA can get," he told DRCNet.
The DEA, for its part, has answered reporters' questions about a looming offensive coyly. "The marijuana clubs are not our primary priority; we could, but have not, targeted them for investigation," DEA special agent Richard Meyer of the San Francisco field office told Alternet last week. He told Alternet the DEA was focused on drug trafficking. "We have heard people in the community saying that many traffickers are using the cannabis clubs to engage in this business for profit and are not concerned with the sick," said Meyer. "Any cultivation, possession, and distribution of marijuana is illegal under federal law. It is our job to enforce those laws and we will," he added.
Such words are little comfort to people such as marijuana cultivation expert Ed Rosenthal, who was one of those arrested by the DEA in February raids aimed at San Francisco's 6th Street Harm Reduction Center and its suppliers. "I grew pot to supply sick people," Rosenthal told DRCNet. "Now I'm looking at years in prison."
The Sixth Street raids were the first to result in actual arrests, but the DEA has been increasingly active since last summer's Supreme Court decision denying a "medical necessity" defense to federal marijuana distribution statutes. DEA raiders hit the office of Dr. Mollie Fry, a leading medical marijuana recommender, in September (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/206.html#dearaid), effectively shut down the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center last October (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/209.html#medmjwar), and have destroyed other medical marijuana grow operations across the state.
The situation turned more ominous in the eyes of activists when a hearing on the Oakland Cannabis Cooperative case before US District Judge Charles Breyer last week went badly. At the hearing, counsel for the co-ops hoped to argue additional defenses for medical marijuana distribution, but Breyer seemed interested only in the question of whether a permanent injunction would be necessary to stop the clubs from providing medicine under California law. While Breyer did not issue a ruling, movement lawyers seemed braced for a defeat.
"If Judge Breyer issues that permanent injunction, then we will have a year in the twilight zone while it is appealed," said Steph Sherer, national head of the Cannabis Action Network (CAN). "The pressure will be on, but we will be ready to fight," she told DRCNet.
California NORML's Gieringer also saw trouble looming in Breyer's courtroom. "They are about to get that permanent injunction, and then they have to do something with it," he said. "At a minimum, they would have to close the remaining clubs covered by that injunction. Beyond that, they will apply it as many other places as they can. Every time they get a favorable decision, they move," Gieringer said.
"We've also seen quite a bit of activity by the DEA," said Gieringer. "Agents have been following people home, spying on clubs, and there have been unpublicized raids on small caregiver gardens. That's the kind of thing that usually gets an acquittal or slap on the wrist in state court, but now the feds are getting involved."
CAN's Sherer told DRCNet that her group had organized Americans for Safe Access (http://www.cannabisaction.net/article.php?id=44) in the face of a bellicose Justice Department. "It's ASA vs. Asa [Hutchinson, the DEA head]," laughed Sherer. "But seriously, our purpose is do to an aggressive media and grassroots campaign to force Ashcroft and Bush to back off the medical marijuana and give states the right to choose their own marijuana laws."
ASA will do a tour up the West Coast from San Diego to Washington state to train local groups how to do media work, campaign work, and basic training in civil disobedience and legal strategies, said Sherer. But it is also working with medical marijuana advocates and dispensaries in the Bay Area to come up with an emergency response plan to expected raids. "We will take that plan to our allies statewide, then nationwide," said Sherer. "All that will happen within the next two weeks, and yes, we are considering civil disobedience."
Gieringer also predicted the turn to massive civil disobedience. "There is a sense among the patients that here is where they will draw the line," he said. "They are ready to engage in civil disobedience, they are ready to stand up here. This could be a Stonewall," said Gieringer, alluding to the 1969 riot after a police raid on a New York City gay club, an event generally marked as the birth of the gay liberation movement.