Pubdate: Mon, 06 Mar 2006
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2006 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Jeff McDonald, Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


December Searches Yield No Arrests Yet

Nearly three months after federal agents raided 13 medical marijuana 
dispensaries in San Diego County, the government has yet to make any 
arrests or file any criminal charges.

Most of the pot clubs that closed during the high-profile searches 
reopened days later. Meanwhile, at least 10 new dispensaries, 
cooperatives and delivery services have set up shop.

Even though it appears to be business as usual within the close-knit 
medical marijuana community, an uneasy cloud hovers over the 
dispensaries and their customers.

The operators worry that federal agents will show up any minute, guns 
drawn and warrants in hand; patients are afraid they may be arrested 
or that another sweep would force the clubs to close for good.

Few dispensary operators are willing to speak publicly, even though 
the names, addresses and telephone numbers of their organizations are 
easily found on the Internet. Instead, they lie low and hope for the best.

"There's a lot of trepidation out there," said Dale Gieringer of 
California NORML, a San Francisco group working to reform marijuana 
laws. "A lot of the patients are concerned and wondering how long the 
clubs are going to last down there."

Law enforcement officers converged on most of the county's medical 
marijuana dispensaries Dec. 12, confiscating about 50 pounds of 
marijuana and related products, computers, patient records and other materials.

The government insisted the records would remain confidential and 
legitimate patients would not be prosecuted.

The sweep was organized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 
with assistance from county sheriff's deputies and San Diego and 
other local police agencies after six months of surveillance and investigation.

Although dispensaries are legal under California law, the federal 
government does not recognize medicinal benefits of marijuana, which 
remains illegal under national drug laws.

The conflicting laws have left patients, police and local officials 
in a lurch for the past 10 years.

San Diego County supervisors voted to sue the state over the legality 
of its marijuana laws, a move that prompted the American Civil 
Liberties Union and other advocacy groups to petition the court to 
intervene in the case. Activists launched a bid to impose term limits 
on county supervisors.

The U.S. Attorney's Office did not return telephone calls seeking 
comment last week. The investigation remains active, a DEA spokesman said.

"We're being diligent in the evidence that we're collecting," Special 
Agent Misha Piastro said. "The proliferation of the dispensaries does 
concern us."

Damon Mosler, who runs the narcotics unit of the District Attorney's 
Office, said he expected criminal charges would be filed against some 
dispensary operators as soon as next month.

Mosler said he does not know whether cases would be presented in 
state court, where the permissive medical-marijuana laws apply, or in 
federal court, which does not allow any medical-necessity defense.

"They're using federal resources for the investigation, but it will 
be both agencies making the decision at the same time," he said.

Reaction to the raids, one of the largest medical-marijuana sweeps 
ever conducted by the DEA, has varied dramatically among dispensary operators.

Some shops closed altogether. One changed its name and removed a 
colorful sign above its North Park storefront. Another expanded into 
plush new office space. At least 10 new operations opened, according 
to California NORML, which posts the services on its Web site.

Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland group that 
promotes legal access to medical marijuana, said the rising number of 
dispensaries would prompt more cities to pass ordinances that 
accommodate the clubs.

"The patient community is standing up for itself," said Sherer, whose 
organization is among those planning to fight the county's lawsuit 
against the state. "Voters of California are saying, 'This is not 
what we think the federal government should be doing.' "

Jon Sullivan, who closed his local dispensaries after the December 
raids, said San Diego is the nation's main battleground pitting 
federal drug laws against states' rights to permit medical marijuana.

Sullivan said he expects to be arrested at some point despite the 
allowances under California law but looks forward to the case being 
put before a jury.

"We need to end this 10-year battle. It's just plain wrong," Sullivan 
said. "They gave us rules, we followed the rules and they come in and 
steal all our stuff."

Prosecutor Mosler said resolving the conflict between state and 
federal law, or at least adopting guidelines each side could agreed 
to, would benefit patients and law enforcement officials.

People "need to get their elected officials to create some more 
certainties," he said. "That is the best route to have access to medicine."
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman