In a coordinated sweep, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and state and local police raided 13 San Diego-area medical marijuana dispensaries Monday. The multi-agency raiders seized marijuana and medical records, but made no arrests except for three people seized on outstanding warrants. The search warrants were not issued by the feds, but by California authorities, meaning if any criminal charges are filed, defendants would be tried under California law.
The cops acted as if they were raiding Al-Qaeda headquarters, said Tony Amirine, who runs an Ocean Beach dispensary called Utopia. "Guns to my forehead, handcuffed, down on the ground," he told San Diego CityBeat. After a group of eight to 10 heavily-armed officers secured the premises, they searched the place for three or four hours, Amirine said. "All I do is sell weed to sick people."
That is legal under California's Compassionate Use Act, passed by popular vote in 1996, and supporting legislation passed last year. At last count, the number of medical marijuana dispensaries in the state hovered around 160. But California dispensaries and even medical marijuana patients can be prosecuted under federal drug laws, which do not recognize medical marijuana.
What is not legal under California law is providing marijuana to people who cannot prove they have a doctor's recommendation to use it for medicinal purposes. The raids came after a months-long investigation that included sending undercover agents into the dispensaries in an effort to obtain medical marijuana without the proper paperwork. Law enforcement spokesmen claim they were able to do just that.
"These were nothing more than a front for distributing marijuana," DEA San Diego Special Agent in Charge John Fernandes said at a post-raids news conference. "You have a high percentage of healthy 18-to 25-year-olds walking into locations, smoking joints around the community. We received complaints and we took action," he said.
The response from medical marijuana supporters was immediate and energetic, with San Diego activists meeting Monday night and demonstrating downtown Tuesday, and the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) organizing protests at federal buildings in cities around the country Wednesday. But movement veterans also warned other dispensaries to shield themselves from such raids by being extremely careful to operate within state law. In other words: Don't sell marijuana to people who cannot prove they have a doctor's recommendation to use it for medicinal purposes.
"These actions fly in the face of voters," said Laurie Kallonakis, president of San Diego NORML. "Politicians and law enforcement officers are not doctors," she said. "Patients' records have been taken in violation of privacy rights."
Led by San Diego city council member and medical marijuana supporter Toni Atkins, the city began a program to issue medical marijuana ID cards in 2003. Monday's raids were a disappointment, a spokesman for Atkins said. "Councilmember Atkins led to fight to get the city to issue ID cards, and we thought we had gotten to a point where the police would be laying off, so this is disheartening," said her press secretary, George Biagi. "We have tried to do as much as we can, but it is becoming increasingly difficult," he told DRCNet.
"What did these dispensaries do to get raided?" asked California NORML director Dale Gieringer. "As far as I can tell, at least some of those facilities were very conscientious and trying their best to comply with the law, but people do make mistakes, and these undercover agents use all their wiles to try to wrangle pot out of the clubs. Apparently some clubs did it without proper documentation, or maybe not. We will see."
While expressing concern over the raids, Gieringer noted that any charges filed would be state and not federal. "This is really quite important," he told DRCNet. "Notice that even the DEA kept insisting these people had sold to undocumented patients. They implicitly acknowledged that dispensing marijuana is okay if it's for legally documented patients."
"That it was state warrants is good news," said ASA spokesperson Hilary McQuie. "If any charges are brought, they will be in state court – not federal court, where they would have no opportunity to defend themselves."
Still, said Gieringer, there is no need for heavy-handed policing. "This is a very rude way for them to proceed," he said. "Local authorities could have worked this out through a political process. There has been talk of an ordinance in San Diego to regulate the clubs, but right now we are in a state of anarchy, and that is a problem. You have around 20 clubs operating there, and even under the best of circumstances, not all of them will be up to the highest standards."
There is a better way, agreed McQuie. "We are talking about regulation," she told DRCNet. "If you look at how we treat alcohol and tobacco, outlets that are not properly carding people typically get a fine, and if they keep it up, they may lose their license. If officials find a dispensary is not complying with state law, the appropriate response would be a system of fines and license revocations."
That depends on local political will. And while the city of San Diego has been relatively friendly to medical marijuana, San Diego County notoriously has not. In fact, just last week the county board of supervisors voted to file a lawsuit to challenge California's medical marijuana law in federal court, and the San Diego County Sheriff's Office was involved in the investigation that led to Monday's raids.
"The County Board of Supervisors has decided to use taxpayer money to sue the taxpayers. They are out of touch and out of control," said Margaret Dooley of the Drug Policy Alliance in San Diego in a statement attacking Monday's raids. "The raids are just the next step in a systematic effort to deprive patients of their right to medical marijuana in San Diego County. While neighboring Riverside County and other parts of the state are working to implement the necessary regulations on medical marijuana dispensaries," Dooley continued, "County authorities are colluding with federal agents to act against San Diego constituents and their expressed wishes."
But the San Diego Police Department was also involved, even though Chief William Landsdowne pulled his officers from a similar joint task force with the feds after the DEA raided the Wo/Men's Access to Medical Marijuana (WAMM) dispensary outside Santa Cruz. On Monday, Assistant Chief Cheryl Meyers told the San Diego Union-Tribune Landsdowne decided to participate in this investigation because it targeted dispensaries within county lines.
The chief was wasting valuable resources in a misguided effort, said ASA's McQuie. "This seems like a case of misplaced priorities," she said. "They spend tons of money and eight months going after a dozen medical marijuana dispensaries to try to catch any impropriety. What a waste. There may be a few bad apples, but the system is serving patients and working well," she said.
Both McQuie and Gieringer had words of warning for dispensary operators across the state. "You and your employees should being going strictly by the book," McQuie said. "Stay within California law and the regulations that apply where you are. If we want to move forward and continue to create safe access for patients, we need to be spotless."
Gieringer was equally direct. "Clean up your act," he advised operators. "Be careful who you sell to. Stay within the law. That's the message."
That would be easier to do if San Diego County would implement an ID card system, Gieringer added. "We don't have the state ID cards going yet, and the county is one that has been rejecting the ID card system. Nothing would be better for clearing up this problem than implementing it now," he said.
The legal fallout from Monday's raids is yet to come, perhaps in the form of indictments down the road, perhaps in further raids. The political fallout has already begun. But if the DEA and local law enforcement hoped to crush San Diego's dispensaries, they have not yet succeeded. Most were open for business again the following day.