A pipe dream
Local medical marijuana busts, federal crackdown attempts to put industry out of business
By Shane Cohn 12/15/2011
Are you not entertained? For anybody keeping an eye on Washington, how could you not be? But this is not a piece about Herman Cain. Nor is it a piece about a billionaire, reality TV star moderating a GOP presidential debate. It is also not an article on the sequence of events showing elected leaders turning their heads while their cronies on Wall Street commit massive fraud and crush the economy in such a way that people left their homes for more than two months to live in tents around the nation as a sign of solidarity against crooked government and corporate greed.
Instead, it’s the story about yet another dance with Mary Jane and the Department of Justice (DOJ). During the past few months, reports about the DOJ’s sudden crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries have popped up in periodicals throughout the country, more so in the 16 states that have legalized marijuana in one way or another. Many of the stories have railed against President Barack Obama. Despite marijuana being criminal at the federal level, Obama made a campaign promise to leave licensed and regulated dispensaries alone as long as they adhered to state law. Yet, as the San Francisco Weekly pointed out, raids on growers and dispensaries have only increased on Obama’s watch. And on Oct. 7, four California U.S. attorneys warned from the state capital that not only would a swift federal crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries be carried out, the landlords would also be in danger of losing their property to the feds and facing hefty zoning violation fees. Suddenly, these licensed and legal state businesses and their landlords became something of a crime syndicate sought by the DOJ.
And this is the same DOJ that became mired in the “Operation Fast and Furious” scandal earlier this year, when it was learned that U.S. federal agents, since 2009 and possibly earlier, sanctioned the sale of nearly 2,000 semi-automatic weapons to straw pushers who would take the weapons to Mexican drug cartels. The purpose, reports have revealed, was to trace the weapons to cartel kingpins. But officials lost track of the weapons along the way.
Yet, while legal medical marijuana has swelled to a multibillion-dollar industry, the California U.S. attorneys on Oct. 7 publicly declared a war — not on heroin, not on meth, or any other hard drug — but a war on marijuana. The industry, announced the federal officials, has swelled with illicit crooks making illegal profits.
“Forcing dispensaries to close does nothing for the demand for the medicine, instead it only pushes the market underground, which in turn invites more illegal activity into our communities,” said Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara/Ventura. “I see the federal crackdown as an aimless and senseless misuse of resources.”
In the most recent report from the Sacramento Bee, Dan Rush, who directs the United Food and Commercial Workers Union’s medical cannabis division, estimated that statewide crackdowns have resulted in the loss of 5,000 jobs, “including positions in dispensaries, construction, security and other support businesses.”
Ventura County didn’t really have to worry about its dispensaries being raided by the DOJ since the county doesn’t have any. Every city has a moratorium against pot dispensaries. But on Sept. 2, the city of Ventura’s 2009 medical marijuana moratorium expired. Aware of the expiring moratorium, a nonprofit organization called Ventura County Community Patient Association (VCCPA), which is estimated to have close to 4,000 members, applied for a dispensary business license. The application was denied due to zoning restrictions, and the collective’s lawyer, James Devine, filed an appeal at the end of September, planning to take the issue to superior court, if need be.
But on Oct. 6, a day before the federal attorneys announced their plans to go after those in the legal marijuana business, the collective’s president, Bleu Garner, 33, was arrested for sales of marijuana, possession of marijuana and conspiracy. The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department press release said that Garner was “responsible for coordinating the sales of marijuana in Ventura County using a mobile delivery method.” Garner’s arrest, along with the arrests of Edward ‘Ned’ Welsh, 52, and Michael Dallape, 20, wrapped up a three-month investigation by county narcotics detectives. Four other drivers from the collective were also arrested.
“It was essentially a mobile dispensary,” said Deputy District Attorney Blake Heller. “They go out and make deliveries to people, using ‘runners’ to go make deliveries.” Though Heller declined to give specific details about the case, he said that Garner, Welsh and Dallape were acting outside the guidelines of the state’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (Prop. 215) and subsequent laws like SB 420 which allows patients to “collectively or cooperatively” cultivate for medical purposes. And this, Heller said, is “where people say the gray area lies and what they are getting prosecuted the most for.”
In a medical marijuana collective, a group of “ill” patients seeking marijuana for treatment finds a person, or people, who can cultivate the herb for the patients and caregiver members. The marijuana is provided to the patients by a caregiver, and the grower is reimbursed for the expense of cultivation.
“These mobile dispensaries are selling for profit,” said Sgt. Mike Horne of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department narcotics bureau. “They call themselves a collective and a co-op, but just because they have a list of names they sold to, it doesn’t qualify them as a caregiver. They are charging the basic, going rate and making a profit. That is not allowed under guidelines of (Prop) 215.”
Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara/Ventura
Devine, who is not representing Garner in criminal court, insists that these arrests are part of a much bigger picture in the frame of medical marijuana. “It’s very clear to me that these arrests were to prevent [the collective] from pursuing its appeal and suing the city to open up a dispensary. As a citizen, I am a little concerned that the city is using its power to prevent political speech by arresting people. . . . It’s awfully convenient that I filed an appeal at the end of September and Bleu, Ned and Michael get arrested a week later. It’s not even covert. “
Devine continued, “It’s very clear to me that they, whoever ‘they’ may be, have decided we don’t want dispensaries in Ventura County and that is just more of the good ol’ boys and gals deciding ‘hey, we don’t like the law and we want things to be our way.’ ”
Heller disagreed, saying the investigation began as a result of a traffic stop of one of the collective’s drivers and is not linked federally. “Call it what you want, but it’s selling drugs using other people.”
“We’re a collective that provides delivery. Not a delivery service,” said Garner. “We’re a collective abiding by the law. We did not have a gangster mentality. I put an ad in the paper, put the business license filing in. We’re a state corporation. I don’t hide because I didn’t think it would come to this. I didn’t think the county would want to waste this type of money on something like this.”
For the cities in Ventura County to uphold the federal fight against marijuana, it raises the question of when exactly should a city institute federal law in place of state law.
Ventura Councilmember Christy Weir has been a vocal proponent for sticking with federal law when dealing with medical marijuana issues.
“Issues like this cause trouble because the interpretations between state and federal law are so murky,” Weir said. “A lack of clarity means a more difficult time for a jurisdiction in terms of any kind of legal parameters and practical policing issues.”
But what is murky to one may be clear to another. Federal law is not consistent with California law in many areas, including pollution, environmental rights and employment rights.
“Federal law is a much lower standard,” Devine said. “You want to go with that? That is a slippery slope because you don’t get California, you get D.C.”
With the country facing a monstrous federal debt crisis, spending federal funds to undercut state laws may not be a good use of taxpayer money. Ashley Schapitl, spokeswoman for Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara/Ventura, said “Lois’ position is that the federal government should defer to state law on this issue, and given the tremendous fiscal difficulties facing the federal government, the crackdown is not the best use of federal taxpayer dollars.”
Since 1998, Garner said, he has set up more than 80 collectives, working as a consultant and a 501(c)3 expert in every state that has legalized medical marijuana. The VCCPA was his first in Ventura County. The 4,000 members of the collective, all with county-issued medical marijuana cards, were working together to create safe access to medical cannabis, said Garner. A “grow” in the city of Topanga, with up to 99 plants, was also provided for the collective until it was sacked following Garner’s arrest.
“The county has never seen a collective like this,” said Garner, his case scheduled for an early disposition conference on Dec. 16 at Ventura County Superior Court. “This is what I do for a living. I don’t have a problem with this result because this is what has got to happen when you have a county this bad. This is what it has to come down to, a trial. If it doesn’t come down to a trial, how else will we get to hear what a jury thinks?”
What about the 4,000 members of the collective seeking their meds?
According to Garner, when his house was raided on Oct. 6, officers confiscated all of the collective’s paperwork, including the names of all the patients registered with the collective.
“I’ve had to e-mail them and tell them to disassemble and do what you need to do. I don’t want to risk anybody else getting charges,” said Garner.
Though there are no medical marijuana dispensaries in Ventura County, and collectives are being splintered, the need for the medicine still remains. The black market will likely surge, along with the demand for the product, and will, in turn, create more illegal activity, arrests and, ultimately, prosecutions.
“This will affect Ventura in the long run,” said Devine. “It will create more clandestine operations, more unlicensed deliveries, more being in the dark. . . . This is still reefer madness, still stirring it up and, what, now Venturans have to go to drug dealers’ houses?”
Heller said that lawmakers didn’t design marijuana laws as a way for businesses to make money off of people.
When the IRS ruled in October that federal law prohibited not-for-profit dispensaries to make standard deductions like salaries and expenses on their tax returns, it all but set up the industry for complete failure. While 30 Fortune 500 companies have found loopholes to pay no federal taxes over the past three years, according to a report compiled by the nonprofit groups Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the DOJ has decided on an all-out assault on an herb that brings California about $100 million in tax revenue from dispensaries.
Rep. Lois Capps
For many, it’s baffling what is so frightening about legalizing and regulating marijuana. A major issue that seems to offend law enforcement is the belief that many dispensary owners are profiting from their businesses. The Nixon-era drug war is still being waged that has cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars, and the drug cartels, dealers and corrupt officials are the ones profiting. The DOJ is brokering the sales of semi-automatic weapons to Mexican cartels. And there is fear of allowing Americans to grow a plant and sell it in a regulated market? Is a counter-cultural phenomenon promoted by capitalism so bad?
Since the four California U.S. attorneys announced there would be a federal crackdown on dispensaries and their landlords, they have said that they acted collectively and did not receive direct orders from D.C. What is troubling is that Obama has done nothing to intervene, ignoring his campaign promise about not interfering with pot dispensaries following state law. If federal law continues to supersede state law on this issue, a dark future has been cast over the industry — as this month’s leading Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has called medical marijuana “a terrible idea.”
Who knows, perhaps presidential candidate Ron Paul, a medical doctor by training who favors the right to use medical marijuana, will pull an upset and save the day.
Oh, how we would be so entertained.