Raided Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Were Fronts for Illicit Drug Ring, Federal Authorities Say
Wednesday's raids of 23 residences and businesses and three medical marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco were part of a federal investigation into a multimillion-dollar illicit drug dealing and money laundering operation in which medical marijuana dispensaries in California were used as fronts for an international drug ring, federal authorities said on Thursday, the New York Times reports (Murphy, New York Times, 6/24).
U.S. Attorney for Northern California Kevin Ryan said the raids were part of a two-year investigation and were not related to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case Gonzales v. Raich (Richman, Oakland Tribune, 6/24). Ryan said, "We're not talking about ill people who may be using marijuana. We're talking about a criminal enterprise engaged in the widespread distribution of large amounts ... of marijuana and other drugs, and money laundering their proceeds from these activities" (New York Times, 6/24).
According to the Los Angeles Times, the operation allegedly "cultivated at least 17,000 marijuana plants, trafficked in Ecstasy, and engaged in money laundering and international bulk cash smuggling" (Bailey/Glionna, Los Angeles Times, 6/24). In addition to more than 9,000 marijuana plants, authorities seized three firearms, 50 Ecstasy tablets, two dogs and "a plethora" of brownies and other sweets that were laced with marijuana and packaged for commercial sale, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Finz, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/24).
The investigation involved the Internal Revenue Service, the Secret Service, immigration authorities, and state and local drug agencies (Walker, San Jose Mercury News, 6/24).
Special Agent Jose Martinez said the investigation was the largest ever by federal authorities that involved medical marijuana dispensaries (New York Times, 6/24).
The drug operation had been operating for four years, according to Javier Pena, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's San Francisco office (New York Times, 6/24).
The unsealing Thursday of a June 16 indictment by a federal grand jury and the release of multiple affidavits revealed additional details about the investigation. According to one affidavit, a San Francisco man allegedly involved in the drug operation described to an undercover DEA agent how he and his associates used medical marijuana dispensaries as fronts for illegal drug sales. In addition, the affidavit alleged that the man sold the agent 1,000 Ecstasy tablets. The man was arrested Wednesday (Oakland Tribune, 6/24).
In all, 20 people were indicted by the grand jury and 15 arrested as part of Wednesday's searches (San Jose Mercury News, 6/24). At least four people are still at large, the Chronicle reports (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/24). According to the New York Times, the operation's alleged leader, a 33-year-old San Francisco man, is still at large.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Pena "declined to link the bust to a renewed campaign against dispensaries" (Los Angeles Times, 6/24). Pena said, "We're empathetic to the ill and to the sick. However, we cannot disregard federal law" (USA Today, 6/24). He said, "The Supreme Court reiterates that we have the power to enforce the federal drug laws -- even if they are not popular. We're going to continue to do that."
However, Ean Vizzi, an attorney representing three of the defendants, said authorities "are trying to make it a more offensive crime to ... cover the fact that they're attacking something the people of California overwhelmingly wanted."
Omar Figueroa, an attorney for two of the defendants, said his clients "appear to be running legitimate marijuana clubs."
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) said he continues to support Proposition 215. He said, "We want to make sure medical marijuana clubs are operating as they should, and appropriately, that people are not abusing their right and privilege to dispense medical marijuana" (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/24).
Matt Dorsey, a spokesperson for the San Francisco attorney, said city officials "absolutely respect" the "compassionate use of cannabis" by sick patients (Los Angeles Times, 6/24).
Two newspapers on Thursday published editorials related to Wednesday's searches and arrests. Summaries appear below.
New York Times: The raids "could be harbingers of a broader crackdown," and "[p]ublic officials would be wise to clean up" their jurisdiction's medical marijuana systems "lest flagrant abuses by a few bad actors bring about destruction of a program that benefits many," a Times editorial states. According to the editorial, "laissez-faire transaction[s]" that allow patients in "peak health" to easily obtain medical marijuana at dispensaries make "an easy target for anyone seeking to denigrate the whole program." The editorial concludes that "[s]tronger regulation" of dispensaries would "send a message that ... the state stands behind its medical marijuana law" (New York Times, 6/24).
- San Francisco Chronicle: It appears that "San Francisco's tolerance and openness is being abused," and "even the medical marijuana diehards have to wonder" if all of the city's dispensaries are "really in business to comfort the sick," the Chronicle editorial states. According to the editorial, there needs to be "a tough-minded set of rules for selling and dispensing" medical marijuana if "city leaders want any support" for the practice. The editorial concludes that "it's time to get moving on such plans" or the city "risks losing what little credibility and control it has" (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/24).