The DEA in Chains: When in Doubt, Call in the Local Cops

The Drug Enforcement Administration believes in starting at the top. By shutting down two of the most aboveboard and righteous of California's medical marijuana operations, the feds can perhaps instill such fear that they free themselves from chasing the shaky and the small-fry. Last October they shuttered the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, so respected that the city of West Hollywood co-signed its mortgage and so open that it allowed Congress's General Accounting Office in for a look.

And yesterday, some two dozen DEA agents descended, chainsaws in hand, upon the medical marijuana cooperative, the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), located near Davenport, some sixty miles south of San Francisco. California NORML director Dale Gieringer said, "The DEA is making a statement by going after the gold standard of dispensaries."

As the agents went about destroying some 130 plants up in the middle of nowhere in the San Lorenzo mountains, twenty or more WAMM members -- none of whom pay for their medicine -- barricaded the sole route off the property, a narrow mountain road.

First they blocked the road with a truck. Abandoning that strategy, they retreated a bit further to make their stand at a gate to the property, a heavy chain soon padlocked around the gate. Not that the woman in a wheelchair or the stout one with a cane could have physically overmastered the agents, should it have mano a mano come to that. But WAMM also called in the media, and soon several TV news cameras and print reporters stood by hoping for a confrontation.

WAMM board member Heather Edney was one of the protesters. Noting the press, she said, "I don't think the DEA wanted to have to shove a patient in front of the TV cameras." It's elemental, whether facing Bull Conner's Birmingham fire hoses or the DEA's shiny new SUVs: at some point desperate people who can't stomach it any longer prepare to put their bodies on the line.

Ready to leave, the DEA was now locked in. They had packed up the pot in their rental trucks and, charges Edney, seized some patient lists. But those pesky TV cameras remained focused on pathetic people in wheelchairs who didn't have enough sense to accept their lot and go on home. The protesters yelling louder, some agents perhaps feeling foolish, the DEA did what any good citizen needing help does: they called the cops.

Mark Tracy, the sheriff and coroner of Santa Cruz County, said that the DEA contacted his office for assistance with the individuals blocking the access road.

Special Agent Richard Meyer, spokesperson for the DEA San Francisco field division, said, "There was some sort of civil disturbance, and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office came and assisted."

But Tracy, a committed WAMM supporter, wasn't going to have his men clear an escape route for the DEA. So there matters lay for a tense hour or so until WAMM's founder and director, Valerie Corrals, started talking tough.

And why shouldn't she, considering the start to her day: men in helmets pointing rifles at her and then handcuffing her still in the pajamas that -- marked woman that she is -- she had foolishly thought to wear to bed.

WAMM board member and a guest in the house, Suzanne Pfeil, described the raid to a tele-press conference. She said she awoke sometime after 7:00 a.m. to find five agents in her bedroom pointing rifles at her. They told her to get out of bed; she told them as a polio patient and paraplegic she could not. Finally she scrambled up on her crutches, her wheelchair being elsewhere, and was handcuffed.

DEA spokesperson Meyer confirmed that, following the protocol for any drug raid, the agents wore "ballistic helmets" and -- pointing out that DEA agents have died in the line of duty -- he stated that they carried weapons sufficient to provide the necessary protection. He would not disclose the type of weapon or number of agents involved.

The gate locked and the feds bottled up, Ms. Corral and her husband, Michael, WAMM's horticultural wizard, were by this point up in San Jose for processing. She relates the tale as follows: Two agents asked me to tell our members to disperse. I said no. They asked me to ask them to let the DEA pass. I again refused. And then they offered to take us back. At one point, Michael asked them if it was a hostage exchange. It was a negotiation to some extent. Yes, I would describe it as a quid pro quo.

Cell phone service blissfully unavailable, there was a scramble to devise a means for Corral to deliver her dispensation, to call off the rabid cancer and AIDS patients. Apparently the Santa Cruz sheriff's department produced a satellite phone, and the ragged band was told to stand down.

At that, still in those PJs of hers, Valerie and Michael were driven to Santa Cruz and given $40 for a cab home, the agents involved not wanting to risk getting caught up on that dangerous mountain. True to the parsimonious ways that have enabled them to serve so many so cheaply for so long, the Corrals called a friend instead. Ms. Corral said, "I consider that money a down-payment on what they owe us."

Sheriff Tracy told me the DEA gave his office no prior notice of the raid.

Special Agent Meyer insisted that the DEA "coordinated with local authorities." He refused to specify how or with whom.

Meanwhile, having been arrested on possession with intent to distribute and conspiracy charges, the Corrals face the same sort of legal limbo the Los Angeles club's Scott Imler has labored under for close to a year. Ambiguously released, the Corrals could face charges at any point over the next five years solely on the evidence gathered yesterday.

But no charges were filed yesterday. The U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco would only say, "No charges have been filed." With no charges as of yet, is hauling off hundreds of patients' medicine tantamount to simple theft? A source in the U.S. attorney's office added, "When no charges are made with the arrest - there's no complaint or indictment -- the investigation is on-going. You can always investigate further."

Citing anonymous sources, the Oakland Tribune said today that, "federal prosecutors had declined to charge them, forcing the [DEA] to let them go." Is it possible the DEA didn't inform their Justice Dept. colleagues of the raid?

It remains to be seen how much more there is to investigate in what, after all, is a relatively small bust by federal standards. At some 130 plants, the number barely exceeds what has been the feds' typical practice of turning most cases of 100 or fewer plants over to local law enforcement. (In what by all accounts is a beautiful, high-yield garden of more than an acre, some plants were seven-feet tall.)

The DEA acted on a tip from "confidential sources" it told the Oakland Tribune. Given the positive publicity WAMM has received, including a recent feature in Mother Jones, the agency's hot tip is akin to confidential information on the occupant of Grant's tomb.

So the Corrals will endure a stretch of legal limbo, an uncertainty that just might be cut short by Ms. Corral's refusal to slink quietly away. She told me, "We can't undue the harm they create in the world - the great harm and physical suffering - but we'll change the law if we have to beat down their flipping doors. "

Given WAMM's reputation and local and statewide support, it remains to be seen if that federal law, the Controlled Substances Act, will actually be applied to the Corrals. (They were the only two arrested; Suzanne Pfeil and a couple of other house guests were not.) How eager is the government for a contentious, high-profile trial of altruistic people who give their pot away?

And since WAMM is a cooperative, a horticultural collective, might the feds be on shaky legal ground busting a group of patients? The May, 2001 Supreme Court ruling against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Club outlawed distribution but did not address personal cultivation. Close to 300 sick and dying WAMM members who are physically capable get their hands dirty in the garden, with some of the rest sleeping over in a trailer to guard the crop. So, does that constitute distribution? Or is it personal-use cultivation by people with doctors' notes who are legal under California state law?

Sheriff Tracy asserted that WAMM always operated on the right side of state law as far as he was concerned. His office maintains "very professional relations with WAMM. At all times they have tried to run their operation in a professional manner."

Would a trial emphasizing the Bush administration's overarching intransigence prove worth it for, should the government succeed, very short sentences? Since the Corrals have good records, sterling references and there was no hint of violence or drug-kingpin profits, they would face perhaps less than a year should the sentencing guideline complexities shake out in their favor, said a law enforcement source. This individual added that the feds don't typically even send people to prison for less than a year, preferring some sort of halfway house or home detention in those cases.

Bill Panzer, a prominent Oakland-based, medical-use defense attorney, figured that the Corrals -- despite ostensible federal mandatory minimum guidelines -- might actually end up doing no more than several months time, followed by some months "wearing a bracelet." And Panzer wondered "whether the government would want some big show trial where it just ends up looking horrible?"

Of course, should the Corrals persist in trying to relieve pain and suffering, as may well prove the case, all bets are off. And insist they probably will, stubborn souls that they are. Ms. Corral said, "We're a collective, we'll continue." Half her members are able to donate to the cause, and half cannot.

By some lights, it's hard to see how she can do anything but, given her assertion that, "We work to keep 35-year-olds out of nursing homes. We wipe their asses for them. We take shifts sitting up with them."

WAMM seems a genuinely different sort of place. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, noted that WAMM was the first medical marijuana dispensary to achieve non-profit status. Raiding it is particularly shameful, he said, since it's the dispensary most true to the "hospice" model. Saying there were "no shenanigans, no profit," he added that 85 percent of the club's patients are terminally ill.

The last refuge for miles around for the very sick; there's a long waiting list for admission to the cooperative, typically possible only when a current member dies. Unfortunately that happens all too frequently. Ms. Corral said five friends -- five WAMM members -- have died in the last two weeks. As Panzer put it, "There are no 23-year-old skateboarders going in there claiming their knee hurts."

In 1999, Ms. Corral served on California Attorney General Bill Lockyer's panel on medical marijuana. And, according to the Oakland Tribune, she and Michael "helped write" Prop 215. Panzer, who may get involved in WAMM's defense, said, "There's no one in the medical marijuana movement I have more respect for. I've never heard a bad word about them." He referred to the group admiringly as a "hippie collective."

WAMM enjoys a few gorgeous, sylvan acres, the Pacific just visible in the distance. There's a couple of ramshackle houses with a shifting roster of occupants. Allen St Pierre, executive director of the NORML Foundation, referred to WAMM as the "socialists in the woods." Dale Gieringer said, "Theirs is a living counter-culture. They're living the old '60s dream on the fringes of the cash economy."

Following the DEA evisceration, WAMM received widespread support. Americans for Safe Access claimed there would be protests today at various federal buildings in Oakland and San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, Santa Rosa, Madison, Wisconsin, New York, Chicago, Austin and Washington, D.C. It says it participated in general protests at 54 DEA offices this past June.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt said that WAMM operated totally within the law and declared herself "absolutely appalled" that, so close to September 11th, the federal government is spreading "sorrow and fear. It's not reassuring that federal agents are running around the mountains in Santa Cruz County interrupting WAMM's important work."

Nadelmann noted that 65 to 70 percent of the public favor the use of medical marijuana. Despite that sentiment, Nadelmann declared the Bush administration chock-a-block with the "fanatical, inhumane and the temperance-minded. They're like the old [alcohol] temperance warriors who cared not a bit for the harm prohibition causes."

Probably coincidentally, the raid came a day after a Canadian Parliament committee called for marijuana legalization. The exhaustive 600-page report, issued by the Canadian Senate's Committee on Illegal Drugs, called for regulating marijuana like alcohol. Among many other provisions, it found no evidence for the discounted theory that pot is a 'gateway' drug leading to harder drug use, according to its chairman, Pierre Nolin. It's a theory promulgated continually by U.S. federal authorities, most recently by Drug Czar John Walters.

Apparently though, a press-conscience DEA is fond of coincidence. In a particularly pointed jab, it chose February 12th - the same day DEA Director Asa Hutchinson addressed a jeering crowd at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco -- to raid San Francisco's Sixth Street Harm Reduction Center. Oddly enough, in that speech Hutchinson declared that the DEA would not go after patients; WAMM, of course, is nothing but the very sickest of patients. Their medicine hauled away, Pfeil said, "Patients are going to be forced to take more pharmaceutical drugs, which is maybe what the government wants."

In the absence of public support, it's hard to fathom the Feds' true aim, with now four widely protested raids on California dispensaries since October, 2001. Gieringer asserts he has heard from several sources both within the medical marijuana community and within law enforcement, "that the Justice Department has ordered a crackdown on California's medical cannabis clubs." The Feds having now decimated the two most high-profile, tight and correct operations outside San Francisco, the question arises as to how many more big-news busts they even need before the majority of dispensaries give up the ghost.

Speaking more broadly and referring to the use of automatic weapons to raid a "hospice," Nadelmann said such actions indicate a worrisome rogue mindset as the White House and Congress define the limits of sensible homeland security.

Bitter at the loss of so much medicine, Ms. Corral said, "People should wonder how they're going to be safe in their homes with this happening. But with a court-appointed president, this is what you get."

Street dealers, of course, rejoice at the imposition of federal law. A WAMM member named Hal told me it cost WAMM 94-cents to grow a gram of organic medicine; he estimated the street cost at $15.00 a gram. Another, more self-reliant route beckons, though one that does the terminally ill little good. Pointing to that 2001 Supreme Court ruling outlawing distribution but not personal cultivation, St. Pierre said, "It's a good time to be a local grow-equipment entrepreneur. Two years from now there's going to be a profusion of equipment sellers."

Whatever happens, doubtless there'll also be a profusion of special agents - folks the drug war enables to retire early with a pension and health care for the rest of their days -- ready with their boots shined and their "ballistic helmets" polished.

The Corrals face prison -- maybe. And some patients face a hastened death because men with guns, men working for every voter in this country, stole the cannabis that some use to control their vomiting so they can keep other medicine in their stomachs long enough to make it into their bloodstream. It's that simple.

Daniel Forbes writes on social policy. His recent report on state and federal political malfeasance geared to defeat treatment rather than incarceration ballot initiatives was published by the Institute for Policy Studies. Much of his work, including his series in Salon that led to his testimony before both the Senate and the House, is archived at The Media Awareness Project.


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