Thursday, February 12, 2009

S.D. Cracks Down on Medical Pot While Feds, State Loosen Up

California Director of Americans for Safe Access Speaks to Local Group


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Don Duncan, Dion Markgraaf, Rudy Reyes, Donna

The situation for medical marijuana users is loosening up just about everywhere in the country — or at least in the 13 states that have laws allowing it — except in San Diego County and elsewhere in southern California. That was the message Don Duncan, California director of the nationwide organization Americans for Safe Access (ASA), brought to the local ASA chapter in San Diego February 10. For years medical marijuana users have been bedeviled by federal raids ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in 2001 and 2005 that state medical pot laws didn’t protect patients, caregivers and growers from federal anti-drug law enforcement — but, said Duncan, the Obama administration has sent signals that these raids may soon end.

“When the DEA [federal Drug Enforcement Administration] raided a Lake Tahoe dispensary on January 22 and several others in Los Angeles last week, we started to get concerned,” Duncan said. “There was a tremendous grass-roots outcry that you didn’t see in the media. So many people called the White House switchboard that they [officials in the Obama administration] came to us and asked us what we wanted. The White House wanted to do something, so Wednesday night, February 5, the administration spoke out about medical cannabis [marijuana].”

The statement came from Obama spokesperson Nick Shapiro and was given to the conservative Washington Times newspaper. “The President believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws,” Shapiro said, adding that “as [Obama] continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government” — including a new head of the DEA — “he expects them to review their policies with that in mind.” Duncan also said he hopes Obama’s repeated statements that “he’ll let science decide the issues,” though usually thought to refer to global warming and stem-cell research, means he’ll take a more progressive view and support the federal Institute of Medicine’s recommendation that sick people be allowed access to medical marijuana immediately.

Meanwhile, San Diego County’s local efforts to circumvent California’s medical marijuana law continues apace, San Diego ASA chair Dion Markgraaf and others at the meeting reported. Among the overflow crowd were individuals who themselves had been raided in the first week of February for reasons which remained a mystery — no press releases had been issued and no media had covered the incidents — until the San Diego Union-Tribune Web site published a dispatch about the incidents and Steve Walker, deputy communications director for San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, issued a release about them on February 10.

According to these sources, the raids on medical marijuana users were part of “Operation Endless Summer,” a sting operation begun last fall “as a response to concerns over increased drug trafficking in military housing.” Walker’s press release said that “the operation focused on drug dealers and violent criminals operating in a Fleet Concentration Area” — i.e., Navy housing — “and negatively affecting the quality of life of families living in military housing.”

Walker’s release explained that the operation was a collaboration between the U.S. Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the San Diego County District Attorney’s office and the San Diego Police Department. The release stated that, “As part of the operation, law enforcement seized $19,000 in cash; two pounds of crystal methamphetamine; a half-pound of powder cocaine; one gram of heroin; more than 75 Oxycontin pills; 100 Ecstasy pills; more than 400 marijuana plants; six pounds of marijuana; and seven guns.”

“There were lots of raids last week, and they started on Tuesday [February 3] with people in this room,” said Markgraaf. “I thought, ‘More raids, more terror. Should I tell people to hide their children?’ I started calling people on my list, and the people on that list got busted. Most of the people were linked to a girl named Jessica. She helped contribute to people going to a house on Pico Street, a Navy house, where people made [medical marijuana] buys with doctors’ letters.” Markgraaf compared the operation to a similar sting a year or two ago that targeted students at San Diego State University (SDSU) and cost some about-to-graduate students their degrees, and predicted that, as with the SDSU raid, this will achieve little or nothing in prosecuting people for truly dangerous drugs.

“What happened here was that the Mayor of San Diego’s liaison said delivery services would be left alone, so they’re raiding us,” said Donna, a caregiver who was one of the 33 people arrested in the San Diego raids. (The media coverage said that “Operation Endless Summer” targeted 52 people, which left a lot of the ASA meeting attendees worried that they’re on the list of 19 people who still haven’t been apprehended.) In a letter she wrote to San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Jeff MacDonald, Donna described the hell she went through on the morning of February 5.

“I looked out my window and saw about 10 men dressed in black riot gear and helmets running towards my home, carrying a large metal pipe for smashing doors and all armed with semi-automatic assault rifles,” Donna wrote. “I stepped out onto my porch to avoid the possibility of having my licensed assistance dog, Buster, shot by the San Diego Police Department. As these men and women pointed their semi-automatic rifles at me and ordered my hands into the air, my bathrobe fell open and there I was, naked for all the world to see. My days of trauma had just begun. I was handcuffed, my house destroyed, and I was taken to jail.”

Donna’s letter characterized the raids as “home invasion robberies” carried out under cover of law. “Medical marijuana patients and the general population as a whole should be outraged at the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars that were just wasted for a bunch of police to infiltrate a group of sick, injured and dying people — to befriend them — to feign sickness and to manipulate and trick us into helping them obtain medicine,” she wrote. “Was this ordered by the same Mayor who appears nightly on television talking about how broke this city is?”

“The problem in San Diego is not the feds, it’s the state,” said attorney Gerald Singleton, whose client, John Ottombrino, has also been targeted by local law enforcement. Singleton said that when he tried Ottombrino’s case, the local judge, Ted Weathers, “would not let us present the medical necessity defense. The position of the local D.A. and law enforcement is they don’t like the law and won’t enforce it.”

Duncan made the grimly ironic point that the recent flurry of law enforcement attacks on medical marijuana users, caregivers and distributors in southern California is a paradoxical reflection of the movement’s overall success. Not only has Obama’s spokesperson come out against the raids and promised that Obama’s appointees on drug policy won’t pursue federal attacks on state medical-marijuana laws — “the most important statement [of support] we have ever had from a U.S. President,” Duncan said — but 16 Congressmembers have signed a statement urging the DEA to expand opportunities for scientists to research the medical benefits for marijuana.

“If we weren’t winning nationwide, you wouldn’t be having these raids,” Duncan said. “They know a new day is dawning. The clock is ticking. It’s almost over. The California Supreme Court is ready to make a decision on San Diego County v. San Diego NORML [National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws]” — a suit the San Diego County Board of Supervisors (later joined by San Bernardino and Merced Counties) filed to have Proposition 215 declared illegal on the ground that the federal government pre-empts all drug laws — “but we already know what the ruling is going to be because we already won a similar case at the state appeals court involving Garden Grove, and both the California and U.S. Supreme Courts refused to hear that case. The reason they’re stalling, fighting, busting people and wasting resources is because they know the tide is turning.”

Rudy Reyes, a local medical marijuana patient — he started using it to relieve his pain after being badly burned in the 2003 Cedar wildfire — and activist, described a meeting he had with DEA agents in Oakland in early February. Noting that just the fact that he was invited to speak to DEA agents about medical marijuana is a victory, Reyes said, “They were upset at Obama’s policy because they’re worried about the loss of money.”

The reason is yet another of the dirty little secrets of U.S. drug law: asset forfeiture, which allows federal, state and local law enforcement to seize the property of alleged drug dealers, put it in the treasuries of their own agencies, and refuse to give it back even if the person they seized it from is ultimately found not guilty. According to Reyes, law enforcement agencies have seen the asset forfeiture laws as a giant piggy bank for them, and they’re worried about losing it. “We’re easy money for them,” he said. “They’re going to go after head shops and demand they pull oil burners.”

Reyes also spoke to the County Board of Supervisors during the public-comment portion of their February 10 meeting. Reyes said that the Obama administration’s statement that they won’t use federal anti-drug resources to target state medical-marijuana laws “destroys [the basis for] their lawsuit” seeking to invalidate Proposition 215. When Reyes addressed the Board of Supervisors, he recalled, “I asked them to review their policies and set up a task force” to implement the state law.”

Then he made another stop — to San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office — to ask him for a meeting about the ID card issue. “Sanders said he won’t have a meeting with us because he’s more concerned about the city’s financial issues,” Reyes said. “We just got told by the Mayor that we’re not that important.” Fortunately, newly elected City Councilmember Marti Emerald, a former TV journalist for Channel 10, has approached him for information on the issue and he’s hoping she’ll take the leadership role former Councilmember Toni Atkins took on medical marijuana earlier in the decade. Reyes also said he has a meeting scheduled with County Sheriff Bill Kolender February 17.

The meeting ended with a discussion of what to do in case of further raids against medical marijuana patients. “The most important thing we should learn is to have a better communications system,” Markgraaf said. “Even the little I did helped. Number two, we should be prepared. You should know about bail, and not think about it for the first time when you get raided. Number three, people don’t know each other’s phone numbers any more because of cell phones [whose numbers often change when people lose a phone or switch to a different plan]. You have to have not only yourselves but your family members ready to call. We need to support these cases, both communally and civilly, and we need to use these cases to make change.”

Americans for Safe Access: