Federal agents raided a controversial medical marijuana dispensary in Torrance on Thursday, seeking evidence that could lead to criminal drug dealing charges against its owners.
Workers at a nearby business said about 18 police and federal Drug Enforcement Administration officers blocked the entrances to the Green Cross of Torrance's parking lot at 22926 Hawthorne Blvd. at about 2:30 p.m. Then about half a dozen officers in vests and helmets approached the dispensary with guns drawn.
"They were walking like cats," said one of the workers, who asked not to be identified. "And then they said, 'Open the door! Open the door!' "
According to a DEA affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to support a search warrant, investigators suspect Green Cross director Rafael Chavez and his brother, Edward Chavez, are common drug dealers, committing crimes including possession and distribution of marijuana.
"Though (Green Cross) purports to sell marijuana to individuals solely for medicinal reasons, there is probable cause to believe that the location sells marijuana to individuals who do not have any medical condition," Special Agent Joseph Bryson wrote in his affidavit.
No arrests were made during Thursday's raid.
Reached for comment, Rafael Chavez said he had little knowledge of the search and reiterated that his co-op was established to offer safe access to marijuana for medical purposes.
"For the most part, I don't know what's going on, but I do think it's not good for all these patients that are relying on this," Chavez said. "It's legal in California, and I'm being harassed by federal agents."
During the past few weeks, investigators put the business under surveillance. Bryson said he watched the business from 3:39 to 5:18 p.m. on Oct. 5, seeing 15 customers exit the Green Cross with brown paper bags.
Many of the customers parked a long distance away and walked, then "looked in all directions as they walked from the dispensary," the affidavit said.
"Of the 15 customers I observed, none appeared to be seriously ill or physically impaired," Bryson wrote. "One of the customers carried a cane, though he appeared to use the cane only when he came in close proximity to (Green Cross)."
On Oct. 10, a team of agents and police officers watched 25 customers come and go from the co-op in two hours. A police officer pulled over each customer as they drove away.
The affidavit said male and female customers admitted to buying various types and quantities of marijuana ranging from $55 to $70 for an eighth-ounce. One man, the document said, bought one-quarter ounce of marijuana for $140.
One customer, identified in the document as Raymond Buckey, told the officer who stopped him that he had just bought five different kinds of marijuana in eighth-ounce increments at $70 each, and showed the officer five green vials containing marijuana, the document said.
Authorities could not confirm whether Buckey was the former Torrance resident who came to fame in the 1980s in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case in Manhattan Beach.
Torrance's only marijuana dispensary brought controversy the moment it opened in April.
As a result of Proposition 215, passed by state voters in 1996, California is among a handful of states that allow doctors to recommend marijuana for specific medical ailments, including cancer, anorexia, chronic pain and AIDS.
But the possession and use of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, creating some confusion for local municipalities. Federal law contends marijuana has no medicinal value.
Given conflicting policies, medical marijuana supporters argued over the summer that Torrance should side with the will of the state voters who passed the so-called Compassionate Use Act.
Others, however, insisted Torrance should not knowingly license any business that violates federal drug laws.
The Torrance City Council voted unanimously Aug. 1 to deny business licenses to cannabis co-ops and other establishments that violate federal law.
At the time, a police spokesman said there were no imminent plans to shut down the local dispensary. But, city officials said, come December all businesses seeking to renew their licenses would have to sign declarations affirming they don't violate federal, state or local laws.
Chavez told the Daily Breeze in August that he wasn't sure what would happen to his co-op in the meantime. He added that he had every intention of working with the city.
DEA spokeswoman Sarah Pullen said her agency's investigation is not related to the Torrance city controversy or California laws. "We served a federal search warrant," Pullen said. "Marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance and is illegal."
According to the search warrant affidavit, the Green Cross listed 28 different strains of marijuana for sale on its Web site. "The menu also included marijuana edibles and topical lotions," the agent wrote. "Entries as recent as Oct. 13, 2006, indicated that Green Cross of Torrance is still operating as a marijuana dispensary."
Pullen said she did not know what agents seized from the business. The search warrant said agents sought marijuana, derivatives, edible products containing marijuana, and paraphernalia used for its cultivation, including high-intensity lights, nutrients, fertilizers and irrigation equipment.
Investigators also sought paperwork and computers.
Staff writer Doug Irving and Copley News Service correspondent Matt Krasnowski contributed to this story.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.