Feature: Feds Target San Francisco Medical Marijuana Dispensary -- DEA Agents Face Angry Protestors 12/23/05

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DEA agents operating under a federal search warrant early Tuesday morning raided two residences linked to San Francisco's HopeNet medical marijuana dispensary, rousting HopeNet operators Steven and Catherine Smith from their beds, handcuffing them, and seizing marijuana plants, prepared marijuana, and cash. That afternoon, dozens of patients and activists organized by the medical marijuana defense network Americans for Safe Access (ASA) blocked DEA agents from entering the HopeNet Clara Street facility for several hours. But the agents returned later that evening after the crowd had dispersed, breaking down the door and searching fruitlessly for more marijuana. They had better luck at a nearby warehouse, where they seized 500 plants.

HopeNet storefront, San Francisco
(courtesy California NORML)
Tuesday's raid on HopeNet comes a week after DEA agents teamed up with local law enforcement in a multi-agency task force that raided 13 San Diego dispensaries. Other than three people detained for outstanding warrants in San Diego, no arrests have yet been made.

In last week's joint San Diego raids, the DEA was careful to accuse the raided dispensaries of operating outside California law, as it did in the only other feds-only dispensary raid since it got a green light from the Supreme Court, whose June decision in Gonzalez v. Raich held that federal drugs laws trumped California�s medical marijuana law. Federal officials have conducted raids or prosecuted at least 29 other medical marijuana patients or providers since the state law came into effect in 1997. The DEA made no such claims about HopeNet, nor did it have the cooperation or participation of local law enforcement. HopeNet is consistently described by people familiar with San Francisco's dispensary scene as adhering scrupulously to California's medical marijuana laws.

That made no difference to the DEA, which does not recognize any such thing as medical marijuana. "This was a two-year investigation into marijuana trafficking based on an anonymous tip," said DEA San Francisco spokeswoman Casey McEnrey. "This is about distributing marijuana, and we believe some of the marijuana cultivated at the locations we raided was going to HopeNet," she told DRCNet. "We target drug trafficking organizations, and that includes those who supply them."

Although no arrests have resulted from the raids in the last two weeks or from the last federal raid on San Francisco medical marijuana operations in June, arrests in the HopeNet case could be coming, warned McEnrey. "No charges have been filed yet, but the investigation is still ongoing, and we are working with the US Attorney's office," she said.

What they will find, according to local observers, is an operation that not only rigorously screened patients, but also provided medical marijuana for free to poorer patients and worked tirelessly with city officials and other interested parties to craft dispensary regulations the city, its residents, and the dispensaries could live with. "HopeNet is one of the most respected patients' groups in San Francisco and has worked closely with patient activists to assure safe and affordable access to medical cannabis," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML.

"They are a shining example to the community," said Anthony Bowles, whose California Marijuana Party office is next door to HopeNet's Clara Street storefront. "This was a real problem area, really blighted before Steve and Catherine came along, and they brought nothing but solutions. HopeNet is one of the best dispensaries here in San Francisco. They are an amazing role model. It was a comfort to be in there; they had a really good vibe. This is a real shame," he told DRCNet.

"HopeNet is serving a thousand patients and providing meds to low-income patients for free day in and day out. It is perhaps the most well-run and patient-friendly co-op in the city," said ASA campaign director Caren Woodson. "They played by the rules, and they have been heavily involved in recently completed effort to craft a regulatory umbrella for dispensaries in the city," she told DRCNet. "It is especially outrageous that the feds would target HopeNet. We're scratching our heads."

protestors outside HopeNet
(courtesy California NORML)
"Given last week's raids in San Diego and the raid on HopeNet this week, this is the largest federal crackdown we've seen in a decade," said Woodson.

"We are questioning the use of federal resources on this," said ASA's Woodson. "There are lots of other law enforcement issues that need attention, and this is a city that is resolute about medical marijuana with respect to the feds. This city has worked hard to find ways to locally control dispensaries, and it is working. Neither the city of San Francisco nor the activists and patients are going to stand down. These tactics by the DEA are meant to intimidate us, but it isn't going to work."

But after Tuesday afternoon, it may be the DEA that is feeling a bit intimidated. After finding a HopeNet business card at the Smith residence, four DEA agents in two black pick-ups showed up parked across the street from the dispensary shortly before noon. According to a first-person account by freelance San Francisco journalist Ann Harrison, the agents exchanged words with Catherine Smith's son, Will Curran, who had shown up to open for the day, but retreated back to their vehicles when queried as to whether they had a search warrant.

Meanwhile, angry patients and activists began gathering in front of the dispensary, with the crowd reaching an estimated 50 or 60 people holding aloft ASA's stop-sign shaped "Stop Arresting Medical Marijuana Patients!" signs. Chants of "DEA out of California" rang out as the grim-faced agents waited inside their vehicles. San Francisco Police units arrived, but observed without interfering on either side.

The standoff eventually turned into a press conference with the arrival of city Supervisors Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi, two strong supporters of San Francisco's dispensary scene. Both had played key roles in the arduous process of crafting the city's dispensary regulations, which are set to go into effect in one week.

Noting that HopeNet was in the Soma (south of Market St.) district he represents, Daly said the city had spent months negotiating the regulations in an effort to avoid DEA raids. If the feds don't "butt out," said Daly, the anger evident among the crowd would only grow stronger.

"The DEA and the Bush administration need to understand that San Francisco is committed to upholding patients' rights to medical cannabis," said Mirkarimi. "I have no idea why they are doing this, they hold all the cards. No matter what legislation we craft, we always have to look over our shoulder."

Mirkarimi also said he had asked the San Francisco Police not to cooperate with the DEA and not to confront the protestors. Shortly after Mirkarimi spoke, the SFPD melted away. And shortly after that, so did the DEA agents, who either had not yet obtained a search warrant for HopeNet or were exercising discretion in executing it.

While the crowd claimed victory, it was only temporary. After the crowd dispersed, and under cover of nightfall, the DEA returned to HopeNet, kicked in the door, and executed its search warrant. HopeNet does not store medical marijuana on the premises for security reasons, so the agents contented themselves with ransacking the place, seizing some packing materials, and leaving. They had better luck at the HopeNet warehouse nearby, where they made their biggest plant haul of the day.

Still, patients and protestors had engaged the DEA in a public face-off on the streets of San Francisco for an afternoon and held them off. "It was a standoff between the feds and the patients and the feds backed down," said ASA's Woodson. "They didn't dare come back until it was dark. That shows they are afraid to do this in the public view, and they will continue to have patients and activists standing up for this. We will not be intimidated."

The protestors were ready to do civil disobedience if necessary, Woodson said. "We were set up to form a human chain to not let the agents get inside, and we had legal support ready to go." It didn't come to that this time. But with the Supreme Court having given the green light to more raids with their June Raich case decision, there is likely to be a next time.

-- END --
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Issue #416 -- 12/23/05

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