Federal agents Wednesday raided 11 medical marijuana outlets in Los Angeles County, seizing several thousand pounds of processed drug, hundreds of marijuana plants, an array of guns and bagfuls of cash.
The simultaneous raids, part of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, were the largest such operation in the county in recent memory. Five dispensaries in West Hollywood were raided with the other six in Venice, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks and Woodland Hills.
The action by federal agents angered some local officials and was taken despite a state law permitting possession and cultivation of marijuana for qualified medical patients.
Officials said that more than 20 people were detained for questioning but no charges have been filed. Authorities would not release information about any other people possibly detained at the dispensaries.
Sarah Pullen, spokeswoman for the DEA's Los Angeles field division, said agents seized large quantities of marijuana-laced edibles that included "anything from ice cream bars to lollipops to cookies to candies and candy bars."
In West Hollywood, agents in bulletproof vests, sunglasses, gloves and face masks piled out of the stores -- four of which were on Santa Monica Boulevard -- with boxes and black trash bags full of seized evidence while protesters booed and shouted, "State's rights!" and "DEA go away!" among other slogans.
At the Farmacy, agents loaded three cars with bags as amateur documentary filmmakers and medical marijuana users pushed against police tape. The raid and protest clogged traffic, and motorists honked their horns to show support for the demonstrators.
In all, Pullen said, agents seized well over 100 boxes of evidence and continued their work past 10 p.m.
West Hollywood officials said they were taken by surprise, only learning of the raids as they occurred. West Hollywood has a "long-standing commitment" to the use of medical marijuana for people with such catastrophic illnesses as HIV and AIDS, city spokeswoman Helen Goss said.
"We've been fighting to support the access of medicinal marijuana for many, many years and there's just a great disconnect between the federal government and communities like West Hollywood," Councilman Jeffrey Prang said. "Medicinal marijuana provides comfort and relief to people who are seriously ill and seemingly they view those people as drug addicts who belong in jail as opposed to people who deserve compassion and assistance."
The West Hollywood sheriff's station was notified of the impending raids about 1:30 p.m., one hour before they began, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. David Smith said. Deputies moved in to help control about 50 protesters who gathered in the 7800 block of Santa Monica Boulevard near three of the stores.
California voters approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, in 1996, which made marijuana available by prescription for medicinal uses. SB 420, which took effect in 2004, clarified Proposition 215, and taken together legalized possession and cultivation of marijuana for qualified medical patients.
According to Pullen, neighboring businesses and residents had complained about a significant number of the dispensaries, and there had been increased reports of crime in the areas around the outlets.
"Anyone in possession, selling or distributing marijuana is in violation of federal law and subject to prosecution," she said.
"There are hundreds of thousands of patients in California who need safe and reliable access to a medication that their doctors recommend they use and these raids are an example of the federal government going out of its way to interfere with the lives of patients," countered Steph Sherer, founder of Americans for Safe Access, a national advocacy group for medical marijuana use, based in Oakland.
"I think if California has a problem with our law, that our courts and our law enforcement should handle it," she said. "We have no need for the federal government to come and interfere."
The group planned a protest at 8:30 a.m. today in front of West Hollywood City Hall, Sherer said.
The raids came on the heels of separate actions taken Tuesday by the West Hollywood City Council and the Los Angeles Police Commission.
The council Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance establishing permanent regulations on medicinal marijuana dispensaries, capping the number in the city at four.
The Police Commission, meanwhile, voted to support a moratorium on new marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles and for tougher regulations of existing enterprises. Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton pledged to work with federal authorities to prosecute businesses found to be violating the law.
Richard Eastman, a pro-medical marijuana activist who said he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1995, said he was horrified by the raids. Some of the pills he takes to fight his illness, Eastman said, "take away my appetite, but the marijuana keeps me eating."
As a result of the raids, Eastman estimated that perhaps 2,000 people who ordinarily would buy marijuana for medical purposes "won't be able to get their medicine tomorrow. And it's not like they can go to Sav-On or Thrifty."
The owner of one of the raided dispensaries said Wednesday that she was saddened that people will not be able to have the freedom of choice to use medical marijuana.
"We abide by state and local ordinances, and state laws, in providing a service to patients because they have the legal right by state Legislature to be able to make the choice of having medical marijuana as their choice of therapy," the dispensary owner said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
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