Federal agents fanned out across San Diego County on Monday, executing simultaneous search warrants on 13 medical marijuana dispensaries.
A task force headed by the San Diego office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized approximately 50 pounds of high-grade marijuana along with equipment, computers, patient records and other materials.
No one was arrested on suspicion of drug-dealing, officials said, but three people were arrested on unrelated charges.
The agents arrived at most of the dispensaries unannounced with guns drawn, witnesses said. They handcuffed employees and ran background checks on both workers and patients. Drug-sniffing dogs searched for pot and pot-laced products, such as brownies, ice cream and butter.
The raids were conducted on dispensaries in San Diego and San Marcos but quickly made news across California. Activists were worried that other dispensaries around the state would be targeted next.
Law enforcement officials said the warrants were signed by a federal judge after undercover agents purchased marijuana without the paperwork required under state law, said Jack Hook, the DEA's acting special agent in charge.
"The bottom line is the prices that these people are charging is three to four times higher than you buy from a seedy drug dealer in a back alley," Hook said. "These people are not helping the medically infirm. They're out to make money."
Hook said the task force had identified 29 dispensaries operating across San Diego County in recent months. Of those, 16 went out of business during the investigation.
According to Hook, the dispensaries pose a serious risk to public safety. Several storefronts have been targeted by thieves because there are large amounts of drugs and money inside, he said.
Even though investigators plan to scrutinize the patient records seized yesterday, the DEA said medical marijuana users are not targets of the ongoing investigation.
"Those that are violating federal narcotics laws are subject to this investigation," spokesman Misha Piastro said. "We're talking about drug dealers people who are trafficking in illegal substances."
The afternoon raids incensed dispensary operators and medical marijuana activists, who say the federal government has no business interfering in a state issue.
"These actions fly in the face of voters," said Laurie Kallonakis, president of San Diego NORML, a group dedicated to reforming laws prohibiting marijuana use and cultivation.
"Politicians and law enforcement officers are not doctors," she said.
"Patients' records have been taken in violation of privacy rights."
Although California voters passed an initiative in 1996 allowing the medicinal use of marijuana, it remains illegal under federal law. In June the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal government's authority to arrest anyone using or possessing marijuana in the 11 states that have passed medical marijuana laws.
The city of San Diego adopted guidelines regulating the medical use of marijuana in 2003, seven years after California voters approved the statewide initiative permitting sick and dying patients to use the drug with a doctor's recommendation.
Dispensaries began opening across San Diego last year, after another state law spelling out terms of medical marijuana use went into effect.
For more than a year, local police investigated the storefront operators, visited the dispensaries and kept records, but generally left them alone. After the high court's decision in June, some dispensaries shut down temporarily, but most of them quietly reopened in recent months.
Jon Sullivan, who runs two San Diego dispensaries targeted in Monday's crackdown, said the raid only strengthened his resolve to keep dispensing marijuana.
"There are very sick people out there that need this medicine desperately," he said. "What the feds are doing is against the law I voted for."
News of the raids traveled quickly, both by telephone and on the Internet. Medical marijuana advocates from San Diego to Northern California blasted the operation as an assault on sick people using the only medicine that works to relieve symptoms associated with cancer, AIDS and other diseases.
"We're pretty disturbed by what we're hearing," said Hilary McQuie of Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland organization that promotes safe and legal access to marijuana for qualified patients.
"It seems like a large operation designed to intimidate the medical cannabis community in San Diego," McQuie said. "Given the timing with the board of supervisors' threat to sue the state over Proposition 215, we're concerned there's collusion between state and federal officials."
Last month, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to challenge in court the state law requiring counties to issue identification to qualified medical marijuana patients. Three supervisors Bill Horn, Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Price said San Diego County should not be forced to support activities that are illegal under federal drug laws.
Despite the widely publicized vote, no lawsuit has yet been filed. The county counsel's office has said San Diego County is almost certain to lose such a case.
At the Native Sun dispensary on Rosecrans Avenue Monday, agents asked anyone entering the storefront to step inside for an interrogation. A reporter was told to leave, and not allowed to interview any staff, patients or police.
Another team of agents converged on the Legal Ease Inc. dispensary offices in North Park a little after noon. No drugs are stored on site, but agents took equipment and files.
"They came in with guns . . . lined us up outside and handcuffed us," said one employee, who did not want to give his name because he fears getting arrested. "We're closed now, I guess."
Legal Ease serves some 2,500 patients countywide, employees said.
The warrants were served by a task force made up of a number of San Diego County law enforcement agencies, including the San Diego Police Department.
Three years ago, when San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne ran the San Jose Police Department, he pulled his officers from a similar task force after federal agents raided a collective marijuana garden outside Santa Cruz.
On Monday, Asst. Chief Cheryl Meyers said Lansdowne agreed to participate in this investigation because it targeted dispensaries within county lines.
One dispensary on El Cajon Boulevard apparently was overlooked by the federal agents. Inside, the operator was visibly shaken by news of the raids. So was medical marijuana patient Charles Dunn, who was there to fill an order.
"I haven't had to take prescription drugs in four years," said Dunn, who said his degenerative back and neck condition for years required him to take powerful and expensive narcotics such as morphine and Vicodin to reduce his pain.
Dunn, an insurance broker from Chula Vista, worried that he may have to go back to buying marijuana on the street. In those cases, "you never know what you're going to get," he said.
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