Feature: The Other Shoe Drops -- Feds Move in on California Medical Marijuana 6/24/05

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DEA and IRS agents Wednesday raided three San Francisco medical marijuana dispensaries Wednesday and arrested 15 people in what they described as a vast marijuana and ecstasy trafficking conspiracy. The DEA advised eight other people it is seeking to turn themselves in. That same day, a well-known California physician and her husband were arrested and arraigned on federal marijuana charges some three years after she was raided by the feds and her certificate to prescribe drugs seized by the DEA.

San Francisco medical marijuana protest
(courtesy California NORML)
The moves come less than two weeks after the US Supreme Court cleared the way for renewed federal law enforcement action against medical marijuana with its ruling in Gonzales v. Raich and little more than a week after Congress gave its imprimatur to renewed enforcement by failing to pass the Hinchey amendment, which would have barred the Justice Department from spending tax dollars to enforce federal marijuana laws in states where medical marijuana is legal.

In San Francisco, DEA and IRS agents, in some instances controversially accompanied by members of the San Francisco Police Department, searched 25 locations, including the Alternative Relief Co-Op and the Herbal Relief Center on Ocean Avenue and the Sunset Medicinal Resource Center on Judah Street in "Operation Urban Harvest," in connection with an indictment alleging that 19 people conspired to grow and traffic more than a thousand marijuana plants. Three people were arrested on Ecstasy conspiracy charges, while two of those same three were also arrested on money-laundering charges. (For on-the-scene reporting on the raids, visit journalist Annie Harrison's blog, On the Record.)

"Operation Urban Harvest uncovered a large-scale marijuana trafficking operation involving over 25 locations in the Bay Area, including three San Francisco marijuana dispensaries," said US Attorney Kevin Ryan Thursday. "Documents unsealed today allege that this trafficking organization used several marijuana dispensaries in its conspiracy to facilitate the sale and distribution of illicit drugs, money laundering and international bulk cash smuggling. Over the course of this two-year investigation, over 17,000 marijuana plants were seized. The federal, state and local law enforcement agencies involved in this operation have done an outstanding job," he added, giving himself and his crew the obligatory pat on the back.

Hours before the San Francisco raids began to unfold, federal agents came to the home Dr. Molly Fry and arrested her and her husband, Dale Schafer, on charges they grew and distributed marijuana from their offices at the California Medical Research Center in Cool, California, between 1999 and 2001. Fry and Schafer were indicted by a federal grand jury in Sacramento after the DEA presented evidence she had recommended marijuana to a potential patient despite the "lack of a medical record."

"We will not turn a blind eye to serious and flagrant disregard of federal law," Gordon Taylor, an assistant special agent in charge of Drug Enforcement Administration office in Sacramento, said in a statement. "There may be those who think we can disregard the court and Congress. DEA will not be among them."

"The federal authorities seem to be trying to portray this as cultivation for non-medical use hiding behind medical use," said Hilary McQuie, spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the grassroots advocacy group for marijuana patients. "But we will never know if that's true because the federal courts will not allow any evidence about the medical aspect to be introduced in a trial."

Regarding the charges of Ecstasy trafficking and money laundering, McQuie said, "If those allegations are true, and that remains to be proven, we certainly don't want to see that mixed up with medical marijuana." But she also pointed out that only three people out of those arrested faced those charges. "All the other people arrested were only involved in cultivation of medical marijuana, which is entirely legal here."

The cooperation of various state and local law enforcement agencies with the DEA on the raids was disturbing, said McQuie. "We are disappointed that state and local cops were working with the feds on this. We should be dealing with this in state court under state law, where people can present evidence they were in compliance with the law."

Concerns about police cooperation with the feds were only partially allayed when San Francisco city officials publicly expressed their continuing support for medical marijuana Thursday. Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the city attorney's office, told nearly a hundred people gathered on the steps of City Hall that the state's medical marijuana law still stands and San Francisco would "absolutely respect" the right of sick people to "the compassionate use of cannabis."

"I'm glad we had some city officials come up and say they aren't going to crack down on the dispensaries," said McQuie. "The feds are trying to intimidate us right now. They're making it seem like these cases are affected by Raich, when we know they're really not. There may be some investigations they held off on, so I wouldn't be surprised to see some more of this, but I don't think it's the beginning of a big federal crackdown."

Speaking of cases where the feds had held off until now, McQuie ripped the prosecution of Dr. Fry and her husband. "Going after Molly was just mean and unnecessary," she said. "I really don't understand why, of all the things they could be spending their energy and resources on, the US attorneys want to go after them."

"The DEA's initial spin has indicated that Wednesday's raids stemmed from a long-term investigation of organized crime involvement in medical marijuana dispensaries, not an attack on medical marijuana itself," said Marijuana Policy Project communications director Bruce Mirken Thursday. "While it is difficult to believe anything from an agency as habitually dishonest about medical marijuana as the DEA, such claims deserve examination. Simply put, if it is true that a few shady characters have gotten into the medical marijuana business, the blame for that situation lies squarely with the federal government," said Mirken, a San Francisco resident.

"No one wants to see the spirit of Prop. 215 violated or medical marijuana being used as a cover for activities that do not serve patients. The way to make sure medical marijuana dispensaries follow the law and serve patients properly is through effective local regulation such as San Francisco is trying to put in place," he added. But the problem, he said, lies not in San Francisco, but in Washington, DC.

"The question is, is this in fact the beginning of a major crackdown, or are the feds are just flexing their muscles," said Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "We fear this is the first step in a comprehensive effort to close down all the clubs. I hope I'm wrong," he told DRCNet. "I hope someone in the federal government will come to his senses and realize that the worst scenario is tens of thousands of seriously ill patients being forced into the black market to get their medicine."

The situation is still unclear, Stroup said. "It's easy for the feds to start saying 'criminal conspiracy' and 'money-laundering,' but those dispensaries were dispensing to patients with a doctors' recommendation. It may be that the conduct of some of the dispensaries may not have been up to the standards we would like to see, and we need to determine the facts before we line up for a last stand."

Whatever the case, said Stroup, dispensaries should take note. "Whether this was just a warning shot or not, the clubs will have to begin to operate a little less openly. They may have to go back to the grey market, but then you have the problem of patients who don't know where to go."

One of California's best known medical marijuana physicians, Dr. Tod Mikuriya, had little doubt Wednesday's actions were only the beginning. "This was the Justice Department's 'pogromatic' response to the Raich decision," he told DRCNet. "They have been wanting to be let off the leash, and with that decision they have been given the clear signal to go sic 'em," he said.

"I hope that different California officials will step up to the plate to uphold our law," said Mikuriya, who accused Attorney General Bill Lockyer of "impotent posturing." While the feds had wanted Molly Fry for some time, he said, now they have her. "This is all connected to the DEA and their efforts to suborn the injunctive relief doctors won in the Conant case," he said. "We thought we had protection with Conant, but it's sort of like the leaky condom model of protection. It's a sad situation, both for the doctors and the dispensaries, but we will eventually win, because it is not regulated, and people in the black market are making it more like speakeasies from the days of alcohol Prohibition. It'll just be more low-key and harder to take down."

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Issue #392 -- 6/24/05

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