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August 2, 2006 - Anderson Valley Advertiser (CA)

Column: Ten Years Ago... And Last Friday

By Fred Gardner

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In 1996, August 4 fell on a Sunday. That morning, in the wee small hours, some 100 agents from the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, supervised by John Gordnier, the Senior Assistant Attorney General, raided 1444 Market Street, a five -- story building that housed the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club and Proposition -- 215 campaign headquarters. Five smaller BNE squads simultaneously raided the homes of Buyers Club staff members in and around the city. The raiders wore black uniforms with BNE shoulder patches.

They seized 150 pounds of marijuana, $60,000 in cash, 400 growing plants, plus thousands of letters of diagnosis that citizens had brought from their doctors and left on file at the club.

"It was strange not seeing any San Francisco police," remarked Basile Gabriel, one of the seven employees who had slept at the club and was interrogated that morning. "It felt like the state had invaded the city." Mayor Willie Brown said the high -- profile bust had been carried out unbeknownst to him, and he accused Attorney General Lungren of using "Gestapo tactics." (The club's front door had been battered in and the raiders hung black drapes over the windows to conceal what they were doing from civilian observers on Market Street.) The San Francisco Medical Society protested the confiscation of medical records as a violation of doctor -- patient confidentiality. Dennis Peron charged that closing him down was "step one in Lungren's No-on-215 campaign.

It was timed to kick off the Republican convention in San Diego. They want to make the war on drugs a big issue because what else have they got?"

A few of Dennis's so-called allies in the Yes-on-215 campaign did not want to see him reopen.

They argued that ongoing publicity around the SFCBC would jeopardize their chances of success at the polls.

A man named Bill Zimmerman had replaced Peron as the official campaign manager; his ascendancy was the political price extracted by the group now known as the Drug Policy Alliance for financing a professional signature drive. Zimmerman went so far as to urge the northern California ACLU chapter not to file an amicus brief on Dennis's behalf. "Every time I debate Brad Gates," said Zimmerman, referring to the Orange County Sheriff, a No-on-215 leader, "he always begins by saying, 'This bill was written by a dope dealer from San Francisco,' and emphasizes the looseness with which the Cannabis Buyers Club was run."

The focus on the SFCBC intensified in late September when major California newspapers ran a Doonesbury strip in which Zonker's friend Cornell says, "I can't get hold of any pot for our AIDS patients.

Our regular sources have been spooked ever since the Cannabis Buyers' Club in San Francisco got raided..."

Attorney General Lungren feared the impact these strips would have on the Prop 215 campaign amd urged the publishers carrying Doonesbury to spike the entire set. "Alternatively," he suggested in a letter that was widely run as an op-ed piece, "your organization should consider running a disclaimer side-by-side with the strips which states the known facts related to the Cannabis Buyers Club." According to Lungren, a lengthy BNE investigation had established that the club "sold marijuana to teenagers.

Sold marijuana to adults without doctors' notes.

Sold marijuana to people with fake doctors' notes using phony doctors names and in some cases written on scrap paper. Allowed many small children inside the club where they were exposed for lengthy periods of time to second-hand marijuana smoke.

Sold marijuana to people whose stated ailments included vaginal yeast infections, insomnia, sore backs and colitis -- hardly terminal diseases.

Sold marijuana in amounts as large as two pounds, greatly exceeding the club's 'rules.'"

Lungren called a press conference for Tuesday, Oct. 1, to reveal some of the evidence his investigators had assembled against Peron and the SF Cannabis Buyers Club. Unfortunately, he lost his cool during the question-and-answer session. "Skin flushed and voiced raised, Attorney General Dan Lungren went head-to-head with a comic strip Tuesday..." is how Robert Salladay began his Oakland Tribune story. Don Asmussen in the SF Examiner lampooned "Lungren's War on Comics." The New York Times devoted two full columns to the brouhaha, including a quote from Peron: "Crybaby Lungren... I think he's just gone off the deep end. Waaa!"

Lungren had Peron arrested Oct. 5 on criminal charges that included conspiracy to distribute marijuana -- one more effort to make the vote a referendum on the proprietor of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop carried the No -- on -- 215 message in a final TV ad. Press conferences denouncing Prop 215 were held by Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey and Joseph Califano, president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Former presidents Ford, Carter and Bush released a letter calling for its defeat.

Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein opposed 215, along with 57 of 58 district attorneys and all the law -- enforcement lobbies.

We, the voters passed it by a 56-44 margin, rejecting a lifetime of War on Drugs propaganda. We were trying to tell the government something about marijuana -- that it's no BFD, it can even be good for you -- based on our collective experience and understanding. Our important message has been ignored. The authorities who opposed Prop 215 in '96 have succeeded in severely limiting its implementation and are actively trying to roll it back. They have the nerve to justify the rollback in the name of "what the voters envisioned." They claim that the voters didn't envision doctors approving marijuana for the treatment of depression and other "hardly terminal diseases." They claim the voters didn't envision distribution through Cannabis Buyers Clubs... How would they know why we voted "Yes?" They all voted "No."

Vroman in the Gloamin'

Terence Hallinan of San Francisco was the only district attorney in California who supported Prop 215 when it was on the ballot in 1996. When Norm Vroman was elected DA from Mendocino two years later, Hallinan was grateful to have an ally. He came back from a meeting of the DAs Association with glowing words of praise for the principled Libertarian from up North. Albion activist Pebbles Trippet also spoke admiringly of Vroman -- and still does. Even David Moore and Mike Schneider of the MendoHealing collective, whom Vroman has charged with cultivation of cannabis for sale, think that the DA has been misinformed about the nature of their operation.

They say that if only he knew how many poor people were beneficiaries... Everybody seems to think Norm Vroman is committed to full implementation of California's medical marijuana law.

I don't -- not after listening to Vroman at a meeting of the Medical Marijuana Advisory Board in Fort Bragg last Friday evening.

I heard a man trying to pass off stubbornness for integrity and electoral pandering for a righteous worldview. "My philosophy," Vroman said more than once, "is that if you're from Mendocino County and you're providing marijuana for people in Mendocino County, you won't have a problem." This elicited a knee-jerk cheer from some in attendance -- New Settlers who now consider themselves Original Gangstas. They reminded me of anti-immigrant vigilantes in the Southwest who come on like native Americans. When did these gringos' forbearers fall off the pickle boat? David Moore's "crime" is that he moved to Fort Bragg in 2002 and provided high-quality marijuana to people in San Francisco at a low price.

Mike Schneider's "crime" is that he worked for MendoHealing. (He thought it was fulfilling the purpose of Prop 215. Schneider, an idealist, earned a fraction of what a grower with his skills could have made if his goals were commercial.)

People in San Francisco, especially the poor, don't have the set-up or the training to grow high-resin cannabis.

They don't grow their own wine grapes or tomatoes, either.

Vroman's comments about letting people in other counties "fend for themselves" might evoke applause from some Mendoland chauvinists, but it's disconnected from socioeconomic reality and mean-spirited. Vroman said that "people driving up the 101 corridor" to get marijuana have "created a lot of problems." He didn't specify what the problems have been. He doesn't express contempt for people who drive up 101 to visit the wineries and drive home with a case of Merlot from Handley or Maple Creek. Are the wine people better drivers, or are the "problems" the result of law enforcement profiling and stopping the marijuana people?

Pebbles Trippet heard in Vroman's comments an "openness" to re -- examine the law created by SB -- 420 (which protects "Qualified patients... and the designated primary caregivers of qualified patients... who associate within California in order to collectively or cooperatively cultivate marijuana for medical purposes"). What I heard was a zealous prosecutor intent on taking down MendoHealing himself or seeing the case transferred to the U.S. attorney. With the sole exception of Terence Hallinan, officials from every branch of government at every level -- local, state, and federal -- opposed Prop 215. It was enacted by the people and it's going to be up to the people -- twelve citizens in a jury box -- -- to reiterate its message.

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