After a lengthy period of relative quiescence, federal raids on California medical marijuana operations have started up again. With an August 18 raid on medical marijuana law envelope-pusher Eddy Lepp and his Eddy's Medicinal Gardens and Multi-Denominational Church of Cannabis and Rastafari (http://www.eddysmedicinalgardens.com) and a September 3 raid on the Capitol Compassionate Care dispensary in Roseville, a Sacramento suburb, the John Ashcroft Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have clearly signaled that they remain determined to wage their crusade against medical marijuana in the state. And in a new and ominous wrinkle, the Justice Department moved Wednesday to seize the assets of the Roseville operation.
California voters in 1996 approved Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in the state. Last year, the legislature strengthened the law. The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has already ruled that the federal government has no right to interfere in non-commercial medical marijuana operations in the state. The Justice Department is appealing that decision to the Supreme Court. Both dispensaries raided by the DEA recently did take money for medical marijuana, either through donations or above-board sales, though DEA may be stretching the law to define them as anything other than nonprofits.
In the raid on Eddy Lepp, DEA agents accompanied by members of the California Highway Patrol, the California National Guard, and the Lake County sheriff's office, seized some 30,000 plants, calling the operation "the largest, most sophisticated marijuana garden in the world," Lepp told DRCNet with more thBan a trace of pride in his voice. Lepp, who provided medical marijuana for hundreds of patients, faces two life sentences after being charged with federal marijuana manufacture crimes. He is now out on personal recognizance.
In the Capitol Compassionate Care raids, DEA agents invaded and shut down the Roseville dispensary at gunpoint, served search warrants at owner Richard Marino's home and business, and raided his rural Newcastle farm, where some 500 marijuana plants were being grown for patients. No criminal charges have been filed yet.
When queried by DRCNet, the DEA defended the raids and attacked the whole notion of medical marijuana. "There is no such thing as medical marijuana -- that's a label invented by the marijuana lobby to further their agenda," said DEA San Francisco special agent Richard Meyer. "They want to legalize it for all purposes, but since they know there is no support for that, they came up with the idea of so-called compassionate use. The DEA supports legitimate scientific research on marijuana, but so far the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration recommend that marijuana remain illegal because it is a dangerous drug. When these so-called medical marijuana dispensaries are distributing marijuana, they are violating federal law."
When asked if the DEA didn't have anything better to do than go after dispensaries legal under state law, Meyer replied, "Our number one priority in California is methamphetamines, but that doesn't mean we give a break to cocaine dealers or marijuana dealers. We still have a responsibility to protect the community."
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, whose job it is to enforce California's laws, has been quiet over the latest raids. Lockyer spokesperson Hallie Jordon told DRCNet Wednesday that while he protested the Wo/Man's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (http://www.wamm.org) raids in 2002 because he was "concerned that federal drug authorities would trample on a business that was working with local law enforcement, prosecutors, and health officials," other raids are a different story. "If local law enforcement believes someone is dispensing marijuana illegally while pretending to be a medical marijuana provider, then the Attorney General thinks it is local law enforcement's prerogative to protect the community," said Jordan. "His concern is when the feds come in without consulting the locals and in contradiction to what the local authorities want."
DRCNet could not make contact with Marino, but he told the Sacramento Bee he was surprised by the raid and that he had complied with state law. "I thought I was doing everything above board," Marino said. "I still think I'm doing everything above board." Capitol Compassionate Care had recently gone through a permitting process with the City of Roseville that resulted in a license for the center to dispense medical marijuana to qualified patients. On Wednesday, Marino's woes deepened when the US Attorney's office filed a civil complaint seeking to seize his home and business. "I'm in a state of shock right now," he told the Bee. "I had no idea this was coming."
Lepp, too, claimed to be following state law. "We were completely in compliance with Proposition 215 and Senate Bill 420," Lepp said. Under his reading of the law, he said, SB 420 says patients are guaranteed the right to grow at least six plants. I obey the law. Every year, I send a letter to the local sheriff, the prosecutor, the county supervisors, and this year to Attorney General Lockyer, saying 'I'm Eddy Lepp, I'm located at these precise lots, and I will be growing for myself and my patients at these locations.'"
While Lepp's interpretation of the law may be open to question, it is something of a moot point. Although state and local law enforcement officers cooperated with the DEA in the raid, no state charges have been filed.
"That Eddy Lepp got busted comes as no surprise," said Dale Gieringer, head of the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.canorml.org). "He had 30,000 plants -- big plants -- and they weren't hidden. How could any law enforcement agency just ignore that? But the question is, if they thought Eddy was breaking state law, why didn't Lake County officials go in and bust him themselves?" he told DRCNet. "It would have been a state case, and they would have had to contend with a Prop. 215 defense and a lot of angry patients, that's why," he ventured.
Capitol Compassionate Care was also high-profile, with lots of local media coverage and a controversy with neighbors over his rural garden, said Gieringer. The problem is not publicity, however, he argued, but the unsettled state of the law. "This is above all an indication of a basic lack of a legal framework for marijuana at this moment," he said. "We are in a state of anarchy because the federal government refuses to treat this as a legal enterprise and goes out on raids on a whim."
"The people they've recently targeted have been in the spotlight a lot because of their involvement in medical marijuana distribution," agreed Stacey Swimme, field director for Americans for Safe Access (http://www.safeaccessnow.org), the California-based medical marijuana emergency response network. "They're making an example of these people, and that's what the DEA is all about: intimidation and fear," she told DRCNet. "They wanted to flex their muscles again, but they're definitely not doing it in Oakland or San Francisco."
"It's certainly disturbing that the DEA has again decided to come charging into California instead of letting the state handle its own affairs under state law," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org). "I think they are consciously sending a signal that they are still around, but it is no accident that they have raided people in out of the way places instead of, say, Oakland or San Francisco, where there are a large number of dispensaries operating openly," he told DRCNet. "If the DEA came in there, there would be riots. They want to avoid places where it will stir angry public opposition."
The raid on Eddy's Medicinal Gardens was all too typical, Lepp said, with the DEA and local law enforcement trashing and stealing property. "They seized two brand new pairs of clippers, which were obviously instrumental in my being a drug kingpin," Lepp snorted. "They took my hairbrush, they stole pictures off my wall, they even stole some of my Viagra. It is stupefying. They also took a chainsaw and used it to tear up my water lines, so now I can't plant anything. That was a $35,000 system, and they destroyed it. This was a vicious, malicious attempt to destroy me, a surgical strike designed to wipe me out. They took all the computers, all the financial records, all the bank books. They canceled business orders, they deleted my business email accounts. This was horrendous."
The DEA's Meyer said he had heard of no such thing, and invited Lepp to file complaints with the courts and the DEA's internal affairs division. "We take this seriously," he said.
Lepp is no stranger to run-ins with the law over medical marijuana. In 1997, he became the first person arrested, tried, and acquitted under Prop. 215. He was also the first to be raided in the series of raids centered on the WAMM raids in 2002. No charges were filed in that raid, and Lepp has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the DEA and the Justice Department over the raid. "I am pursuing a civil action against the DEA over a raid two years ago, and I had a court date five days after the raid. But I couldn't prosecute my case because the DEA came and took all my files, all my evidence, just before my court date."
While his operation was huge, it was nonprofit, Lepp maintained. "Patients make free will donations to the ministry to cover the cost of maintenance, fertilizer, and above all, security," Lepp said. When asked if he was making a profit, Lepp replied, "Oh, God, no! I've lost money the last four years. Each year we helped more and more patients, and we hope we can break even some day. The main thing is to help the patients. It's been eight years and the state has done nothing. It still allows the federal government to come in here and arrest citizens obeying state law."
ASA has been leading the way in fighting back, said Swimme. "For both raids, we organized emergency response. We are set up to show up at the federal buildings, either across the state, or in the nearest affected communities, and we did that at the federal buildings in San Francisco and Sacramento." Those demonstrations will continue on a weekly basis, she said. "We want to make sure people know that the federal government is going against state law and taking away people's access to their medicine. It is the patients who are really the victims here. Richard Meyer and the DEA are intentionally targeting people they know are providing medicine to critically ill people who are in their final days or living lives filled with pain. We are asking the citizens of California to rise up and say we are compassionate, we care about our sick and dying, and we won't allow this federal brutalizing of our patients and providers."
As for Eddy Lepp, he is basking in support from the medical marijuana community. "We're getting real good support from everyone. We are planning a fundraiser, and in the meantime, people are coming up from as far away as San Diego and Los Angeles bringing us seeds and plants and money." Lepp's patients are upset that our crops were taken, he said. "But they're not mad at us. They understand they lost their money and their medicine because of the DEA."
Faced with two life sentences, Lepp remains intransigent. "I ain't taking no fucking deal," he said. "They can either put me in prison for life or I can make them leave me alone."
Lepp is seeking donations for his legal defense fund. They may be sent to: Eddy Lepp Legal Defense Fund, P.O. Box 382, Upper Lake, CA 95485.