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December 30, 2005 - Austin Chronicle (TX)

Feds Try Stealing Xmas From Medi-Pot Dispensers, Hemp Growers

By Jordan Smith

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

DEA agents have been doing their very best impression of the Grinch this month by carrying out a string of raids at medi-pot dispensaries in San Diego and San Francisco, Calif.

On Dec. 12, a contingent of agents simultaneously executed 13 warrants in San Diego County, seizing dozens of pounds of marijuana, computer equipment, and patient files from the store front operations that provide sick and dying medi-mari patients who use the drug in accordance with the state's Compassionate Use Act.

Then, on Dec. 20, agents struck again, in an early-morning raid at the San Francisco home of Steve and Cathy Smith who run the HopeNet medi-pot dispensary, which, in part, subsidizes the cost of medi-pot for low-income patients.

Agents seized 126 plants, cash, computers, and, possibly, patient files from the Smith's home, said Hilary McQuie with the medi-pot patients advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. News of the raid sparked a protest outside the HopeNet office, where approximately 100 patients stood in the rain staring down DEA agents who sat in their cars for several hours before leaving. Although the patients thought that meant victory, the agents returned at about 6pm, after the patients left, to raid the dispensary, said McQuie, after hitting HopeNet's warehouse facility where agents seized another 500 plants.

"I am totally in shock and bewildered," Steve Smith told the San Jose Mercury-News. "I don't know how I am going to take care of my patients. Some are dying right now."

Interestingly, the feds have yet to file criminal charges against any of the people involved with the San Diego or San Francisco operations. The December raids in California are the most high-profile busts the feds have undertaken since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer that the government, under the Commerce Clause, may pursue medicinal marijuana patients, and their suppliers, for violating the Controlled Substances Act, which bans the use of marijuana.

In Gonzales v. Raich, a majority of the court opined that because marijuana is illegal under federal law, even California's wholly intrastate medi-pot industry may actually have some collateral effect -- either positive or negative -- on the illegal trafficking of pot across state lines, thus allowing the feds to stick their noses into what would otherwise be considered state business. In the years before Angel Raich filed suit against the government in an effort to ban their interference, the feds had been on a veritable rampage of medi-pot raids.

While Raich was pending that activity slowed.

Since the June decision, things have been relatively quiet -- at least until last week. To McQuie, the raids feel like attempts at federal intimidation. "But it's not working," she said, noting that many of the dispensaries shut down by the San Diego action were open for business the very next day. "There is a need," she said. "If they close one [dispensary], another will open. So [this strategy] isn't going to work."

While federal drug cops in California have been busy taking medi-pot away from sick people, feds in South Dakota last week continued their quest to deny a group of American Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation the ability to grow and sell industrial hemp.

On Dec. 12, lawyers for Alex White Plume and members of his Lakota Nation family argued that the family should have a chance to challenge the DEA's assertion that they must first obtain government permission to grow industrial hemp on the family's reservation land.

From 1999 to 2002, the White Plumes planted their crop and each year federal narcos came onto the land and destroyed the plants, before the DEA in 2002 sought, and in late 2004 won, an injunction against the family, barring the White Plumes from planting hemp without DEA approval.

According to the government, hemp -- which contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannibinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and as such is not grown or sold as a consumable drug -- is equal to marijuana and is thus prohibited under the Controlled Substances Act. As such, according to the DEA, the White Plumes are barred from growing industrial hemp, which is commonly used in food, body care products, and numerous consumer textile products.

Ironically, hemp farming was perfectly legal in the U.S. until the 1970s (when changes to the CSA made continued cultivation untenable), and the feds actually encouraged hemp farming during World War II. As it stands, the U.S. is now the only "developed" nation without an "established" hemp crop, according to a report released this spring by the Congressional Research Service. So far, the DEA's skewed view of what constitutes a "drug" is the only real obstacle standing between farmers and hemp seeds.

According to the DEA, hemp farming would somehow increase the "covert production" of narcotic marijuana, which in turn would hinder their (otherwise successful?) war on drugs.

Ostensibly, the DEA allows for controlled hemp farming -- but only by permit, and the agency has awarded a total of one (which has since expired) to growers in Hawaii -- and has yet to rule on several permit requests, including a 6-year-old application filed by a North Dakota researcher.

As such, the White Plumes' lawyers argue, the DEA's insistence that the Lakota need permission to continue their Pine Ridge operation is simply ludicrous -- a contention obviously not lost on members of the three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is currently considering the White Plumes' appeal. Indeed, as it stands, products made from hemp are perfectly legal, but, because of the DEA and the CSA, hemp products manufactured in the U.S. are made from hemp that is legally imported from Canada and Europe.

"It seems a little asinine to me" that hemp can be imported to, but not grown in the U.S., Judge Arlen Beam commented during oral arguments in St. Louis. "It doesn't make a lot of sense," he continued, that the government would think the Native American economy is "better enhanced" by casino gambling, than by "productively utilizing the land" by growing a sustainable commodity like hemp.

Indeed, the White Plumes' recent attempts to grow hemp were part of a multiyear contract with two U.S. hemp companies, which would've brought the White Plume family approximately $180,000 in income -- quadrupling the family's current income on the Pine Ridge reservation where the unemployment rate hovers around 60%.

None of that is relevant, however, argued Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Salter. "The reality is that hemp is marijuana," Salter said. And the White Plumes "never asked for permission." But the White Plumes say they simply don't need the DEA's permission to farm hemp on their land

The power to farm whatever crop they can was granted by two treaties, including the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, between the Lakota and the U.S. government, long before the DEA was even a twinkle in the federal eye. The Lakota have actually been farming hemp since the time of those treaties, argue the White Plumes' lawyers, and as such, the feds have no power to stop them now. In granting an injunction last year, attorney David Frankel argues, the court "completely ignored relevant Indian law, the treaties, [and] the Constitution."

A decision in the case is expected early next year.

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