Bad Buzz

L.A.'s growing medical pot movement is outraged after feds shut down Van Nuys clinic in surprise afternoon raid.

By Justin Chapman, LA CityBeat/ValleyBeat, 9/14/2006

At about 2 p.m. on August 30, a man with a ponytail walked into the Trichome Healing Caregivers (THC, get it?) medical marijuana dispensary in Van Nuys with an attitude and a fake prescription for medical pot. When a security guard wouldn't let him pass, the stranger pleaded.

"Come on, man. I'm just trying to buy some weed for a friend. I heard you sold to anybody," he said, according to what witnesses have told attorney David Kestenbaum, who represents THC, and posted to the Internet. Then they heard what sounded like radio noises, and noticed the man's gun as he tried to push his way past the guard, at which point the guard stopped him and demanded he identify himself.

"Please don't hurt me," the man said into his radio.

Seconds later, nearly a dozen federal agents with guns drawn kicked down THC's door and had everyone lie on the floor. Several hours later, they got a warrant from Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brett Klein and, with the help of a safecracker, seized pounds of marijuana and other supplies, as well as cash, computers, records, and surveillance tapes that had recorded the incident, according to Kestenbaum. No arrests were made and no charges have yet been filed, but during the 12-hour raid, agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration held several THC employees without food, water, or access to lawyers.

DEA Special Agent Sarah Pullen said the undercover agent -- from the DEA, it turned out -- was at THC as part of an intelligence-gathering operation. A raid wasn't initially intended to happen that day, she said, but occurred only after the agent felt he wasn't being allowed to leave.

"I stand by what we knew at the time, and what we still believe was that the agent was not being allowed to leave," she said. "Whether the employees felt he put them in danger is not really a question -- the agent felt he was not being allowed to leave.

"They realized when they got there that they would need a search warrant. That's what happened," added Pullen, who would not discuss materials seized from THC, as they might be used if any charges are filed later.

Since the raid, attorneys for THC have told patients, staff, and other witnesses not to speak for attribution to the press but criticize the incident as an unwarranted violation of patients' rights under voter-approved state law.

"The federal government is directly targeting patients, despite their public position [that they will not]," said Sean Tabibian, another THC attorney. "This recent raid has made Van Nuys an unsafe place as a result. They allow drug dealers to flourish, because patients need to go to the streets to get their medicine instead of a controlled environment. They're wasting resources by going after patients. We don't know why they chose THC, but we're investigating their actions."

As agents sacked the dispensary, the first to open in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles police were called in to mediate a growing demonstration of patients, activists, and owners of medical cannabis co-ops.

"Early on, when there were only like seven activists, the DEA took a camera from one patient who was taking pictures," said Dege Coutee, an organizer with Americans for Safe Access. "But he couldn't figure out how to erase the pictures, so he gave it back and told the patient to erase them. Then the LAPD showed up, and they said it was fine if we took pictures."

An LAPD spokeswoman referred all calls about the incident to Pullen, who said that local police had no knowledge of the DEA intelligence-gathering operation. However, rumors abound in the medical cannabis community that local police, members of the North Hollywood Narcotics Division in particular, are working with the DEA. On August 11, LAPD Det. John Smith made a presentation to members of the North Hollywood Neighborhood Council attacking medical cannabis clinics and promised that narcotics detectives would pursue action against medical pot clubs despite the protections afforded by California's Compassionate Use Act, also known as Proposition 215, according to an account published by the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Allison Margolin, a lawyer who handles marijuana cases and calls herself "L.A.'s dopest attorney," attended the neighborhood council meeting on behalf of clients who want to start a dispensary. Smith, she said, "told me in a conversation that he was going to forward the names of the people I advise to the DEA when he found out they wanted to open."

Smith did not return calls for this story and, according to the message on his voice mail, has been off duty since August 30 while recovering from a minor injury. The North Hollywood and Van Nuys narcotics divisions also did not return calls.

Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of California NORML, says local police often work with federal agents despite state laws protecting medical marijuana use. "For the last three or four years, the DEA has not gone after any medical cannabis operations in California without cooperation from local police," said Geiringer. He described the Valley raid as "amateurish," and believes the feds are hunting for any evidence that distributors aren't following state laws in order to undermine the medical pot movement.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles City Council members are considering a moratorium on new dispensaries -- and new regulations for existing ones -- due to what Councilman Dennis Zine described as a proliferation of facilities over the past 18 months.

"It's gone from a few to many. There are now 60 to 150 operating in L.A.," said Zine, who is crafting proposed regulations based on those passed by county officials in May and could introduce them as early as this week.

"Meanwhile, we find the federal government is doing as they wish to do, the municipalities vary in their response, and we have to look at what the voters voted for," said Zine, who is a reserve LAPD officer. "They're all conflicting. We have to bring some order to this while making sure people in need have access to their medicine. A lot of people who suffer from various ailments say medical marijuana helps them. I look at patients as the ones being victimized because there's so much uncertainty."

Bruce Mirkin, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the DEA is sending mixed signals. "It's been kind of weirdly on-and-off with DEA operations. They've picked a few places here and there, but there hasn't been a broad crackdown. It's a little confusing," he said.

In San Diego County, both federal and local law enforcement agents raided 13 dispensaries and arrested 15 owners and employees in July. So far, five people have been charged with the federal crimes of conspiracy to distribute and conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, while others are being charged in state court with drug sales and possession. In July, Damon Mosler, head of the San Diego County District Attorney's narcotics unit, said that the raids were a warning to dispensaries, and a short time later the DEA announced plans to eventually arrest San Diego's remaining dispensary operators if they don't voluntarily close.

On September 6, nearly 200 people demonstrated at the federal building on Van Nuys Boulevard to protest the THC raid. Some brought signs with pictures of the DEA agents that had been taken during the raid (several of which were posted to Employees on the second floor of the federal building flashed middle fingers through the windows down to the protesters on the street below.