Days before new regulations for San Francisco's medical marijuana dispensaries were due to take effect, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration targeted a popular cannabis club and found itself in an unexpected showdown with angry locals.
A dozen DEA agents swept into the city Dec. 20, raiding the home of Cathy and Steve Smith, operators of the HopeNet medical cannabis dispensary, and two of their cannabis grow sites.
The DEA team arrived at dawn, marched Steve Smith outside in his underwear, handcuffed him, and searched the house. Smith said the feds didn't realize he and his wife ran a dispensary until the feds discovered a business card during the search.
Two truckloads of DEA agents shadowed Cathy Smith's son William Curran as he prepared to open the dispensary later that morning. But when the agents weren't able to produce a search warrant, they returned to their trucks and sat grim faced as about 50 medical cannabis supporters arrived and surrounded their vehicles. Protestors held up signs announcing that a raid was taking place, and passing cars honked in support of the dispensary.
"The outrage that we see here will grow in San Francisco if they don't butt out of medical cannabis," Sup. Chris Daly said in front of HopeNet, which provided free or low-cost cannabis to 1,000 patients. "HopeNet, by all accounts, is a model facility, and one of the most prominent, most sensitive, and, most importantly, one of the most compassion-oriented medical cannabis facilities in San Francisco."
After a four-hour standoff, which drew a San Francisco Police Department tactical unit for crowd control, local police officers left the scene. DEA agents also retreated, and activists declared victory and went home. But the DEA returned to the dispensary after dark and broke down the door. According to DEA spokeswoman Casey McEnry, agents had federal warrants for all the searches.
The following evening, thieves apparently breached the dispensary's damaged security gate and carted off a computer, a stereo, and presents gathered for children who had been orphaned by AIDS.
Standing in his ransacked dispensary last week, Steve Smith showed how DEA agents meticulously bent the prongs of the electrical plug that connected his holiday lights. "There was nothing here, no patient records," Smith said. "They just kicked the door down and unplugged Christmas."
McEnry said the raids were a result of a two-year investigation sparked by an anonymous tip. The information led to a home in the Sonoma County town of Penngrove, where the DEA seized 217 marijuana plants.
That investigation led agents to the Smiths' home and adjacent grow room, on the 200 block of Cara Street, where they seized 122 marijuana plants, as well as an unknown amount of processed cannabis.
Marijuana brownies and butter were confiscated from the HopeNet dispensary at 223 Ninth Street.
Agents also raided a warehouse on Cara Street and said they seized another 500 plants. Steve Smith said only 140 of the plants had roots, and the rest were cuttings.
"It is a clear violation of federal law to cultivate, possess, and distribute marijuana," McEnry said when asked why federal agents would raid a medical cannabis cooperative operating under California law. "Today, as the DEA, we enforced federal drug laws and conducted a lawful search of these four locations, and we seized marijuana."
Earlier in December, DEA agents shut down 13 medical cannabis dispensaries in San Diego. "I think they will target others," said Steve Smith. "This is a test to see if the community will stand up to them."
Two days after the raid, Cathy Smith and a dozen supporters visited Mayor Gavin Newsom's office to ask for his support. But the mayor, who has not commented on the raids, was not there.
"I think city officials need to provide some answers and ask why this is happening," Kris Hermes, legal campaign director for the medical marijuana patients group Americans for Safe Access, said. "Why was one of the most cherished dispensaries in the city raided when they just spent half a year developing regulations which were ostensibly put in place to avoid that?"
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi - who authored the legislation setting guidelines for medical cannabis facilities and patients in San Francisco - told the Bay Guardian he wants to know if the DEA is persecuting San Francisco for having dispensaries or some other reason.
"It seems like information is scant from the DEA to the police or the mayor - or they are just not sharing it," Mirkarimi said, calling on Rep. Nancy Pelosi to step in if the feds won't talk to city officials. "The elected family of San Francisco needs to be more vocal about our insistence that this is a Prop. 215 state, and this is a law we passed, and to respect that law."
District Attorney Kamala Harris reemphasized her support for medical cannabis. A spokesperson for Harris said that neither her office nor the police were involved in the raid.
No arrests have been made in connection with any of the raids. But McEnry says the DEA is working with the San Francisco U.S. Attorney's Office to review the evidence and arrests are possible.
Steve Smith says he hopes to have HopeNet open again by New Year's Day and that he and his wife will ask the city for permission to give away free cannabis to registered patients on the steps of City Hall on Christmas. But he says the $20,000 confiscated by the DEA was his life's savings and the dispensary's operating funds.
"If there are charges filed, we'll be under hundreds of thousands of dollars of bail that we can't possibly come up with. Bail me out or at least feed my dog," Smith said. "And if there are any brave souls out there who would like to help a couple hundred people with compassion [free medical cannabis], please take my place."
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