An investigator from the district attorney’s office who has been spearheading recent raids on local medical marijuana dispensaries says every pot club in Santa Clara County is operating outside the law.
Dean Ackemann, who has been responsible for obtaining search warrants for the task force that has been conducting armed raids in recent months, said that in his opinion every dispensary in the county should be shut down. “The search warrants and the investigations are not going to stop,” Ackemann vowed.
But he may be wrong.
Ackemann’s new boss, District Attorney Jeff Rosen, seems far less interested in a crackdown.
“I think the voters of California would like people with legitimate medical problems that a doctor thinks can be alleviated with marijuana to have access to marijuana,” Rosen said in an interview Monday evening, hours after being sworn into office.
In the last three months of 2010, four dispensaries were raided by the Santa Clara County Special Enforcement Team (SCCSET), which includes members of the San Jose and Santa Clara police departments as well as the California Highway Patrol and other agencies.
Three of these raids came immediately after San Jose voters overwhelmingly passed Measure U, which would allow the City Council to regulate and tax the San Jose clubs.
In San Jose, there are currently more than 100 medical marijuana dispensaries and delivery services, while there were only a dozen or so as of last March. There has been some speculation that the four clubs singled out were not operating above board, and were profiting from the sale of marijuana, forbidden by 2003’s Senate Bill 420.
Ackemann said that’s not the case. Instead, the investigator said, every medical marijuana dispensary is illegal, regardless of its policies or bookkeeping procedures.
“Unfortunately for them,” Ackemann said of the clubs that were raided, “it was luck of the draw.”
Ackemann said that, in his opinion, California voters’ hearts were in the right place in 1996 when they passed Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act. However, he said, the result has been an epidemic of supposedly nonprofit pot clubs and their patrons taking advantage of the system.
“This is my own personal feeling and the feeling of many other law enforcement I’ve talked to,” Ackemann said. “The majority of citizens were deceived in 1996, because they thought they were voting for people who were critically ill or with debilitating diseases, such as cancer and HIV. Well, the one little line that was included in the Compassionate Use Act is where it says ‘and any other condition medical marijuana would relieve the symptoms of.’”
Ackemann says that that has resulted in distribution of medical pot to “teens with [complaints of] stress, anxiety ... ‘I have a bad back; I hurt my knee skateboarding.’”
Rosen, who took over the position formerly held by Dolores Carr on Monday, said he has not yet developed a strategy for dealing with the flourishing medical marijuana dispensaries, but indicated a willingness to come to some kind of compromise.
“I think the challenge that law enforcement faces is how to implement the desires of voters in a way that is consistent with the law that voters passed,” Rosen said.
The new DA then pointed out that he plans to make personnel changes in his department. “Those changes will be made public at the end of this week and starting next week,” he said.
County vs. City
Just days after Measure U passed with 79 percent of voters’ approval, two dispensaries—MediLeaf and San Jose Patients Group—were raided by SCCSET officers brandishing automatic rifles. Following the raids, Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio, the author of Measure U, posed three questions about the manpower and money being appropriated to SCCSET in a memorandum to San Jose’s acting police chief, Christopher Moore. The response left Oliverio with few answers.
Oliverio asked who had given permission for the dispensary raids. He did not receive an adequate response.
Oliverio asked how many police were involved in the raids. The answer was “SCCSET and various law enforcement agencies.” Oliverio asked who is paying for the raids. The answer was that SCCSET is a state-funded task force.
Oliverio says he felt the response was much too vague. He was particularly interested in the federal grant that funded the raids, which seemed to be targeted for methamphetamine abatement.
“I simply wanted to know the purpose of the grant,” Oliverio says, “and what is our role as a police department when a district attorney decides she wants to do a raid. Does that automatically mean we use police officers? Do we use sheriffs?
“And my other question was: What’s the main purpose? If in fact it was for medical cannabis, and the purpose was to close places making a profit, how is it they know that unless they have a financial audit?”
Hector Gonzalez, who is president of Arc Healing Center and has been acting as a liaison between the city of San Jose and the pot club operators, has the same questions.
“I find this very interesting disconnect with what’s been approved at the state level for some time,” Gonzalez says. “It’s now been 15 years since 215 passed. Granted—there haven’t been many dispensaries in Santa Clara County [until now]. But now I find it a bit confusing who they’re targeting.”
Ackemann reiterates that the task force is targeting any and every dispensary in the city and county.
“The law has been explained to them by the [deputy district attorney, Frank Carrubba] that the sale of medical marijuana is illegal,” Ackeman said. “The only person who can be compensated for marijuana is a primary care provider.”
The San Jose City Council decided on Dec. 13 to work with medical marijuana dispensaries and assess a 7 percent tax on the proceeds of all transactions. At that time, the DA’s office appeared to have little intention of scaling back its investigations and raids, leaving many medical marijuana proprietors wondering if extinction was on the horizon.
Even the dispensaries that claim to be going above and beyond established rules and regulations have reason to fear becoming casualties. Dave Chloupek, who runs MedMar Healing Center in San Jose, said his dispensary requires all marijuana vendors to fill out 1099 tax forms, and offers holistic services beyond marijuana to clients. Still, he fears that might not be enough to stay out of the task force’s crosshairs.
“It’s a race between City Council regulating ordinance and [SCCSET] shutting everyone down,” Chloupek said.
“How is it that everyone in the city and the people who elect the city officials have unanimously said, ‘Yes, we agree with this. Let’s tax it and manage it appropriately?’ That just tells me the left hand doesn’t agree with the right hand and the county is not listening to the city.”