Pubdate: Tue, 03 Apr 2012
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2012 Los Angeles Times
Authors: Lee Romney, Joe Mozingo and John Hoeffel


US Agents Seize Files From Oakland Trade School and Dispensary Run by 
Proposition 19 Backer Richard Lee.

OAKLAND - Federal agents struck at the heart of California's medical 
marijuana movement, raiding the nation's first pot trade school and a 
popular dispensary, both run by one of the state's most prominent and 
provocative activists, Richard Lee.

The raids in Oakland by the Internal Revenue Service and Drug 
Enforcement Administration sent a shudder through the medical 
cannabis trade and angered the plant's devotees, who believe the 
federal government is trampling on California law and the wishes of 
voters who approved medical marijuana use nearly 16 years ago.

Now they are wondering what message the federal government is trying 
to send. President Obama promised during his 2008 campaign not to 
prosecute medical marijuana users who comply with state law, and 
Deputy Atty. Gen. David Ogden reiterated that position in a 2009 memo 
that many credit with helping spark the medical pot boom.

"For them to go after someone who's as high profile as Richard Lee 
likely sends a message that they will go after anyone anywhere in the 
state over medical marijuana and that Obama's promises are hollow," 
said Joe Elford, chief counsel for the advocacy group Americans for 
Safe Access.

The Justice Department has been cracking down on California's 
dispensaries and growers since October. But until Monday, agents had 
not targeted the most visible leaders, or the movement's cradle in 
Oakland, where the city issues permits and taxes cannabis 
establishments and where Lee's Oaksterdam University looms above 
Broadway with a giant college seal adorned with marijuana leaves.

Monday's raids included Lee's apartment, an associate's home, the 
university, the dispensary and an adjoining marijuana museum, as well 
as a property where the dispensary formerly operated. (Lee was forced 
to move the business in October after the U.S. attorney sent a letter 
to his landlord threatening to seize the property.)

The search warrants were sealed, so it is unclear what officials 
retrieved. Witnesses saw agents toting out boxes of documents and 
bags of plant material.

Lee, 49, was briefly detained, as were three workers at his dispensary.

A paraplegic who has used a wheelchair since a severe spinal injury 
in 1990, Lee has said he uses marijuana to treat muscle spasticity. 
He opened his dispensary Coffeeshop Blue Sky in 1999, worked with 
city officials to regulate the industry and founded Oaksterdam in 
2007 to try to legitimize it. Lee used his marijuana earnings to put 
the legalization measure Proposition 19 on the ballot in 2010.

Although the initiative failed, it is widely credited with raising 
public acceptance of the idea of legalization nationwide. Colorado 
and Washington will have similar measures on the ballot in November.

"I don't know whether this morning's raid represents some form of 
'payback' for Proposition 19," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive 
director of the influential Drug Policy Alliance, which seeks to 
reform the nation's drug laws. "But I suspect and hope that the 
principal impact of such heavy-handed police actions by federal 
authorities will be to increase support for the broader legalization 
of marijuana."

Nadelmann said the big question was whether the crackdown that began 
last fall was orchestrated by the Obama administration or by local 
federal officials. A spokesman for the Justice Department in 
Washington declined to comment, as did officials with the DEA and 
IRS, saying the warrants and investigation were "under seal."

Federal agents have conducted more than 170 raids of medical 
marijuana operations nationwide since 2009, according to Americans 
for Safe Access.

Since October, U.S. attorneys have sent at least 300 letters to 
landlords of dispensaries in California and Colorado, ordering them 
to evict their tenants or face seizure of their property and 
prosecution. They have threatened local officials trying to permit 
dispensaries. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has pressured banks 
to close accounts linked to marijuana. And the IRS has audited dozens 
of dispensaries using an obscure provision of the federal tax code 
that prohibits drug traffickers from making any deductions.

Critics of the proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries 
applauded the federal intervention.

"For them to go after Oaksterdam, which is internationally known for 
[flouting] federal law, sends an extremely strong signal not only to 
California pot stores, but also around the rest of the country," said 
Paul Chabot, president and founder of the Coalition for a Drug Free 
California. "I think in the last year we've turned the corner on 
marijuana. Now we've seen city after city, county after county ban 

But some Bay Area elected officials were not pleased.

Rebecca Kaplan, a member of the Oakland City Council, said it made no 
sense for the government to strike "an exemplary community member" 
operating in a city with some of the tightest regulations in the 
country. "What is the goal?" Kaplan asked. "Is it a political goal? 
Is it about sending a message? It certainly raises the concern that 
people may be targeted for their political speech.

"We have in Oakland a real need for law enforcement resources on real 
crime that's a threat to people. If there's extra law enforcement 
resources available, it would be nice if it would be devoted to 
illegal gun crime and stopping illegal gun dealers."

A couple hundred people gathered outside Oaksterdam to protest the 
raids as marijuana smoke wafted in the air. The school is known for 
its courses on cultivation, edible production and the business of 
running a dispensary. Ironically, the prerequisite is a class on 
marijuana laws and how to operate within state guidelines.

Shortly before noon, Oakland police in riot gear arrived at the scene 
to stand between federal agents removing boxes of files and the 
increasingly unruly crowds.

Demonstrators shouted, "Shame on you!" mocked the agents and pounded 
on their vehicles. When the agents moved to the site of the former 
dispensary a few blocks away, the crowd followed. A man who, 
witnesses said, got into a shoving match with one of the officers was detained.

Brett Bankson, 30, of Oakland, came to see the raids with his dog and 
show support for Lee.

He noted that Oakland officials dealt with an initial proliferation 
of dispensaries in the area through strict regulation that limited 
the number to four and captured increasing amounts of tax revenue for 
the strained municipal budget. Last month, city officials granted 
approval to four more.

"They found a way to regulate that was a good compromise for 
everyone," he said. "The whole local economy that has depended on 
this could collapse.

"Now that they're taking away legal avenues, people are going to 
pursue illegal avenues," he said.

Jeff Jones, an Oakland medical marijuana activist who started the 
city's first cooperative in 1995 but was shut down by the federal 
government, said he thought the raid could be a turning point. He 
noted that it came the day before activists planned to march from San 
Francisco City Hall to the federal building for a daylong protest 
against the federal crackdown.

"We couldn't have asked for a better way to get everybody there," 
said Jones. "If the feds wanted to make this go away quietly, they 
just stoked the hornet's nest."

Jones, who worked with Lee on Proposition 19, said that he and Lee 
were surprised this did not happen in 2010.

The 2009 memo by Ogden said agencies "should not focus federal 
resources . . . on individuals whose actions are in clear and 
unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the 
medical use of marijuana."

But part of the problem is that state law has never made it clear 
exactly how marijuana should be distributed, so "unambiguous 
compliance" is often in the eye of the beholder.The state attorney 
general issued guidelines saying dispensaries must be nonprofit 
collectives. But Lee said in 2010 that state law was vague enough to 
allow for his "liberal, progressive" interpretation that he could 
make a profit.

Federal policy clearly forbids it. In his memo, Ogden wrote that 
"prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and 
sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority of 
the Department."

In June, Ogden's successor, James M. Cole, answered federal 
prosecutors' requests for clarification on the law, saying the memo 
was "never intended to shield" all people who "knowingly facilitate" 
violations of the Controlled Substances Act.

Monday's events did not deter the founder of the state's largest 
dispensary, Harborside Health Center, just down the road in Oakland. 
Steve DeAngelo has been as visible as Lee, having let the Discovery 
Channel film the series "Weed Wars" about his dispensary.

He said he has operated under the threat of prosecution since he 
opened five years ago, and that this was just another skirmish in a 
"40 year war we're destined to win."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom