Fed crackdown threatens 'legal' pot operations

November 8, 2011 8:09:51 PM PST
Throughout California, federal prosecutors are cracking down on the booming medical marijuana industry. The feds claim that state law is now a shelter for illegal profiteers, including growers, dispensaries, and even publications that run their ads. Reporter Michael Montgomery looked at how the crackdown is targeting even those who are in compliance with state and local law. Our story was produced as part of a collaboration between California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED public radio.

Matthew Cohen cultivates medicinal marijuana on a 10-acre farm set amid rolling vineyards in Northern California. And for the past year he's been operating legally. Mendocino County rules allow Cohen to grow up to 99 plants, provided he submits to intensive regulations like inspections by sheriff's deputies.

"You know, we figured that we were compliant with state law and compliant with local regulations and that's not what the Federal government was interested in," Cohen said.

But all that changed on Oct. 13 when heavily armed federal DEA agents stormed Cohen's compound.

"Everybody hopped out the of the car very quickly, I told my wife, 'We're being raided,'" Cohen said. "They said, 'Open up, federal agents. We have a warrant.' And I said, 'I'm opening the door right now.' You know, they had the battering ram ready to go through the door and they grabbed me slammed me up against the wall here, cuffed me."

As the agents searched other buildings on the property, Cohen's state of the art security system recorded their moves.

It was only after the DEA raid was underway that Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman learned one of the farmers in his inspection program was the target.

"That afternoon, I assured him that in my opinion, as far as local and state laws were concerned, he was abiding by those laws," Allman said.

But in Cohen's case, the agents took particular interest in documents showing his compliance with county rules. That's because the very same documents that make Cohen legal in Mendocino County could be used to show he is violating federal law.

Days before the raid on Cohen's farm, California's four US attorneys announced a major offensive against the state's marijuana industry.

"One of the reasons that we are making these announcements today is to try to put to rest the notion that large marijuana businesses can shelter themselves under state law and operate without fear of federal enforcement," U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said.

Joseph Russoniello served as a U.S. attorney under three presidents. He says advertising is just one indication that most medical marijuana outfits in California are legitimate targets for the feds.

"I think the U.S. attorneys would probably agree that about 96-98 percent of all the operators, all the dispensaries, certainly, in the state were out of compliance with the state guidelines," Russoniello said.

The DEA and Haag declined to comment publicly on the raid, but Haag previously said they are looking into the Mendocino licensing program. So In Mendocino County, officials are worrying about the fate of the tagging program, something no other county in California has tried.

"People are really wondering what is behind this, what happens next, 'am I personally at risk," Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen said. "We had an individual who was doing everything they could possibly do to be as legal as they could. If the federal authorities are going to raid him, then no one is safe."

While the feds have yet to directly challenge Mendocino's ordinance in court, the recent raids leave medical marijuana advocates across the state worried, and the sheriff's department in a squeeze between local and federal law.

"If the Mendocino County ordinance is in violation of federal law, I want to be told that by the highest court in the land, but if it's not in violation of federal law, I want to be told that too," Allman said.

"Well here's what's left, right there. It certainly sends the message that the federal government would prefer that collectives and co-ops operate underground, unregulated," Cohen said.

"Look, we have consequences, there are things that we have to do to enforce federal law. We have Federal mandates, we will follow those laws," Russoniello said.

The raid on Cohen's farm is cited in a recent lawsuit filed by Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, against Haag and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, accusing them of using coercive tactics to interfere with the powers delegated to the states.


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