DEA Helps San Diego Shut Down Dispensaries

SAN DIEGO, July 21, 2006. The DEA and local law enforcement officials moved to shut down San Diego's proliferating medical cannabis clubs.

On July 6th, agents raided half of the city's dispensaries. Owners and employees were charged with selling marijuana to agents presenting doctors' recommendations.

Two weeks later, DEA agents visited the other half and warned them to close or face arrest. Clubs that opened their doors to the DEA had medicine taken.

All of the 19 San Diego dispensaries listed on Cal NORML's website ( ceased operations. A few delivery services are said to be privately providing medicine.

California NORML denounced the raids as a heavy-handed attack on San Diegans' access to medicine. "Do they want patients buying marijuana on the streets ?" asked California NORML coordinator Dale Gieringer. "

The San Diego D.A.'s office told the North County Times that the county was helping the DEA because dispensaries were selling marijuana to almost anyone who wanted it, rather than legitimate patients. Undercover officers reportedly obtained open-ended recommendations for vague and unsubstantiated complaints from several doctors. Four of the doctors were reported to the state medical board for further investigation.

DA Bonnie Dumanis said she supported medical marijuana "wholeheartedly," but complained that Prop. 215 was being "severely abused."

How can you bust people for breaking the law when there are no rules?" asked patient advocate Dion Markgraaff. "That's what everybody wants, regulation."

San Diego police chief William Lansdowne, who has generally supported medical marijuana, said that the dispensaries had become "magnets for crime" such as burglaries and robberies.

While most of the dispensaries have experienced burglaries, they report receiving few if any complaints from neighbors. Several were visited in a previous round of warning raids last December.

Some 15 persons were arrested on state charges, among them directors and employees of Ocean Beach Dispensary, Native Sun Dispensary, Utopia, the California Medical Center in La Jolla, and Top Shelf Dispensary in Solana Beach.

Six defendants were charged in federal indictments. One was John Sullivan, owner of the Purple Bud Room, who has had repeated run-ins with the law.

The other federal defendants were associated with Co-Op San Diego: Wayne Hudson, Chris Larkin, Ross McManus, Scott Wright, and Michael Ragin. They were charged in connection with an alleged major cultivation operation.

The San Diego district attorney's office indicated that they are not seeking stiff sentences, but simply want operators to cease and desist.

The city of San Diego has been typically supportive of medical marijuana. In 2003, the city adopted liberal guidelines for cultivation and even proposed a patient ID program.

In contrast, San Diego county has been notably hostile to Prop. 215. Earlier this year, it filed a lawsuit against the state of California and San Diego NORML seeking to overturn the state law requiring that counties maintain a medical marijuana identification card program. The lawsuit argues that Prop. 215 should be disregarded because it is against federal law.

Most legal experts believe that the lawsuit will fail, since courts have long held that states do not have to enforce federal law.

However, the legality of dispensaries is far more questionable. State law protects sales only by "designated primary caregivers" on a non-profit basis. San Diego's medical marijuana task force specifically declined to endorse unregulated dispensaries.

San Diego patient advocates are hoping to prevail on the city to regulate dispensaries like other jurisdictions, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles County.

The internet circulated alarming reports that DEA agents were threatening to shut dispensaries across the whole state. However, there is no evidence of further plans beyond San Diego. Without local support, a full-fledged assault on the clubs would tax DEA's manpower and create a nasty PR problem. In the last three years, the DEA has refrained from medical marijuana busts except where they have support from local law enforcement.