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Smoked Out

The federal government makes good on its threat to shut down medical-marijuana dispensaries—and the worst may be yet to come



It was harvest time, and the group of about 25 people had settled in for the day's work of trimming at a grow site in the hills above downtown Windsor. Suddenly, the Sonoma County Sheriff's narcotics unit was at the door, rifles up and search warrant out. "It was just guns-pulled, cowboy-style," says "Mitch," owner of the 36-acre property and one of the leaders of the California Patient Provider Association, a 22-member medical-marijuana collective.

By the end of the day, Mitch's brother and one other person had been arrested, and the remaining trimmers had been cited for possession of marijuana with intent to sell. The case is one of many to hit North Bay courtrooms this year involving collectives that believe they're operating under state and local medical-marijuana ordinances but still find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

"Vincent," who identifies himself as a collective board member, was also there that October morning, and says he's not sure why the raid occurred, though he admits some of the hired trimmers were carrying expired doctor's recommendations. Vincent notes that each garden had about 75 to 90 plants, with posted recommendations for two to four members at each site. All of the plants were destroyed.

According to Sonoma County's medical-marijuana guidelines, established in 2006, patients, caregivers and collectives are allowed to cultivate up to three pounds per year, per patient. Gardeners may cultivate up to a 100-square-foot plant canopy and up to 30 plants per patient.

A look through the official police report from that October morning shows descriptions of a rural property populated with houses, trailers and gardens, a Winchester rifle in an upstairs bedroom and $16,200 in a drawer. In all, a total of $36,000 in cash was taken as evidence from the site, all growing equipment was confiscated and the plants destroyed. In addition, according to the report, three binders with copies of the collective's physician recommendations sat on a table used for trimming, next to paperwork for the collective.

After individually questioning people, the officers searched the house and the rest of the property, collecting any cash on hand or in pocket. (They returned $20 here and there for gas money to those that grumbled, says Vincent, who had $2,000 taken as evidence.) Officers then left, saying that citations would be arriving in the mail. Later that month, Vincent received a letter informing him of the charges and of his first court appearance.

"We were doing the best that we could," claims Vincent.

But the line between legitimate medical cannabis and cultivation for profit can be unclear, to say the least. Combined with law enforcement officials who may not take the time at the ground level to decipher whether a site is following medical-marijuana guidelines before enacting a raid, and with increasing federal crackdowns on dispensaries in medical-marijuana-friendly states, sometimes the subjective "best" just isn't good enough.

Federal Heat

While the exact legalities of medical marijuana have been confusing since the voter-approved Compassionate Care Act of 1996, tension began rising last fall as the federal government ramped up pressure on the exploding medical-marijuana industry. On the morning of Oct. 13, DEA agents raided Northstone Organics collective, a nonprofit known for scrupulously following rules and regulations ascribed by the state and county (down to an innovative collaboration with the Mendocino County Sheriff's office that's since been discontinued).

Next, the IRS hit the state's largest dispensary, Harborside Health Center in Oakland, with a $2.5 million bill for back taxes—it's being disputed by executive director Steve DeAngelo—and told the center that it could not deduct business expenses because of its position as a "criminal drug-trafficking organization." And the intensity of the high-profile hits has only increased in 2012, namely with the April 2 raid on Oaksterdam University, which was founded in Oakland by Richard Lee, who is probably the state's most vocal advocate for the legalization of marijuana.

Marin saw its share of the crackdown when the state's oldest dispensary, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, closed its doors on Dec. 17 after receiving a threatening letter from Melinda Haag, United States attorney for the northern district of California. Three hundred or more of these letters have been sent to dispensaries across California. Most claim to be operating in accordance with the law, but Haag has brought it all down to base geography. "I have a hard time making that distinction [between good and bad dispensaries]," Haag told KQED in March. "When a dispensary comes to my attention that is close to a school, a park, a playground or children, that's a line I've decided to draw."

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