Pubdate: Fri, 04 Jan 2013
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2013 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Peter Hecht


One of California's most renowned marijuana-growing counties is 
fighting a federal grand jury subpoena, seeking to protect the names 
of pot growers who agreed to let the local sheriff inspect their 
gardens and count their plants.

A federal grand jury in San Francisco has subpoenaed all records for 
a landmark Mendocino County program that collected $630,000 in permit 
fees from as many as 500 people licensed as medical marijuana growers 
in 2010 and 2011.

Mendocino County officials filed court papers Dec. 21 seeking to 
quash the subpoena as "burdensome and oppressive," saying it violates 
the county's duty to protect the confidentiality of medical marijuana 
users and its authority to regulate medicinal cultivation under 
California state law.

The legal battle, set for a hearing today in U.S. District Court in 
San Francisco, comes 14 months after federal Drug Enforcement 
Administration agents raided the farm of Matt Cohen, a grower who won 
national media attention as a model for Mendocino County's medical 
marijuana cultivation program.

Cohen, whose Northstone Organics garden in Redwood Valley touted its 
organic "farm direct" marijuana for delivery to medical patients, has 
not been charged. But the raid prompted the county to drop its 
program for issuing permits  and collecting licensing fees  from 
medical marijuana cultivators.

The sweeping subpoena has stirred fears that federal authorities may 
use information collected by the county to prosecute pot farmers who 
paid the county fees and cooperated with inspectors.

The subpoena demands all county documents involving marijuana 
cultivation permit holders and applicants, plant inspection reports 
and financial records related to the medical marijuana permitting program.

"We don't know why the subpoenas were issued and really what the 
(federal) government is looking for," said Kristin Nevedal, executive 
director of the Emerald Growers Association, an advocacy group 
representing medical marijuana farmers in the North Coast region. "I 
think a lot of people are really uncertain about what will happen next."

The local growers association and a medical marijuana advocacy group, 
Americans for Safe Access, filed court briefs this week supporting 
Mendocino County's bid to quash the subpoena.

In 2010 and 2011, nearly 100 Mendocino pot farmers who could document 
they were providing medical marijuana to dispensaries or groups of 
medical users were given permits to grow up to 99 plants. Under the 
program, the county sheriff affixed serial numbered zip ties  for 
which growers paid a $50-per-plant fee  and inspected gardens to 
enforce plant counts, environmental standards and rules for fencing 
and security.

Another 400 permits were issued in 2010 and 2011 for growers with 25 
or fewer plants who paid $25 per plant for certification.

Donald Heller, a former Sacramento federal prosecutor, said the grand 
jury subpoena sought by U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag in San Francisco 
signals that Haag "thinks this is a vehicle to enforce federal law," 
under which all marijuana cultivation remains illegal. "I think she 
is going to pick several cases and indict and prosecute," Heller said.

The Mendocino County program was adopted in April 2010 after county 
supervisors said they wanted rules to help differentiate between 
medical marijuana providers operating legally under state law and 
illicit pot growers who trespass on private and public lands.

The grand jury subpoena served on the Sheriff's Department Oct. 23 
infuriated members of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor John McCowen complained that the federal probe appears to 
target small, compliant growers rather than criminal networks that 
grow hundreds of thousands of pot plants in the backwoods of the 
Northern California coast.

"Why are the feds expending their resources to apparently go after 
people who participated in this program?" McCowen protested. "Why 
aren't their resources going after outlaw growers who are trespassing 
on public and private lands, trashing the environment and endangering 
the public?"

In their motion to quash the subpoena, Mendocino officials said 
disclosure to the federal government of "private records of 
applicants and participating residents" in the county's medical 
marijuana cultivation program "would have a devastating effect on the 
program and on the county officials charged with administering it."

It marks the second time in recent months that a local government has 
gone to court to challenge the federal crackdown on medical marijuana 
in California.

In October, the city of Oakland sued Haag and U.S. Attorney General 
Eric Holder, seeking to halt federal efforts to seize the Harborside 
Health Center, California's largest marijuana dispensary and one of 
Oakland's top tax-paying businesses.
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