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January 19, 2007 - Los Angeles Times (CA)

Medical Marijuana Raids Are Criticized

Federal Agents Trampled on State Laws Allowing the Use of Pot, Say Local Officials and Residents

By Tami Abdollah, Times Staff Writer (Note: Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this report.)

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A day after agents raided 11 Los Angeles County marijuana dispensaries, local officials and residents complained Thursday that the federal government was trampling on state laws that allow the cultivation and sale of marijuana for medical uses.

The raids Wednesday, part of an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, were the largest such operation in the county in recent years. Five dispensaries in West Hollywood were raided with the other six in Venice, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks and Woodland Hills.

The action highlights a continuing struggle between the state, where voters approved medical marijuana in 1996, and the federal government, which prohibits the use and sale of pot.

"A lot of people are involved in some pretty major criminal activity, and they're using state law to traffic in drugs," said Sarah Pullen, spokeswoman for the DEA's Los Angeles office.

But medical marijuana activists said the DEA raids mark another attempt to stem a movement they say can't be halted. They also said the busts mirror a burgeoning trend by federal agents to pounce soon after local governments tighten dispensary rules, as Los Angeles and West Hollywood did this week.

"In truth, what people all over the state are saying is they want dispensaries regulated. That's not the same as saying we want them closed down," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for medical marijuana.

About 100 people attended a protest the group organized Thursday morning outside West Hollywood City Hall.

California voters in 1996 approved Proposition 215, which made marijuana available by doctor recommendation 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.

But a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, Thom Mrozek, said the dispensaries violate federal law. "There's no reason to explain beyond that."

In West Hollywood, city officials said the raids took them by surprise. The city has a "long-standing commitment" to the use of medical marijuana for people with such catastrophic illnesses as HIV and AIDS, said city spokeswoman Helen Goss.

"Cities throughout California are struggling with how to deal with the situation," she said. "The voters in California have clearly voted and support the medical use of marijuana.... The cities are caught in the middle."

Federal agents seized more than 5,000 pounds of marijuana, more than 100 plants, an estimated $200,000, seven handguns and one shotgun in Wednesday's raids. Also confiscated were large quantities of marijuana-laced edibles such as ice cream bars, lollipops, cookies, candies and candy bars, Pullen said.

Twenty-seven people were detained for questioning, and all of them have been released without charges being filed, Pullen said.

Pullen said the raided sites were chosen out of the more than 200 dispensaries in Los Angeles County based on complaints from nearby businesses and residents. She said authorities also received complaints about a significant increase in crimes, such as armed robberies.

At Fountain Day School, a private preschool and elementary school near three dispensaries in West Hollywood, about 300 families signed a letter to the city complaining about the dispensaries.

Problems include illegal parking and marijuana being smoked in a "celebratory" fashion, said the school's general manager, Andrew Rakos.

Most of the families, he said, were happy with the raid even though they recognize that severely ill people need medical marijuana.

Jonathan Shensa, 34, of Los Angeles said he was in Herbal Independence Pharmacy in Sherman Oaks on Wednesday when federal agents took him into custody for 45 minutes of questioning. Shensa said he has used marijuana for almost a year to relieve pain and calm his stomach so he can eat.

"I've got a hard life as it is," Shensa said. "The last thing I need now is to figure out what I've got to do in order to eat. I'm just angry."

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