More than 50 narcotics agents faced an outburst of protests as they swooped into Santa Clara County locations Thursday to serve warrants against MediLeaf medical marijuana dispensaries.
It was the latest in a series of actions against medical marijuana clubs and came the same day prosecutors filed the county's first charges against a man they say is illegally profiting from selling medical marijuana.
Around noon, narcotics agents with search warrants hit two MediLeaf medical marijuana clubs in San Jose and related properties in Gilroy and Morgan Hill, officials confirmed, shutting down the businesses and seizing marijuana, documents and computers.
Danielle Ayers, task force commander of the County Special Enforcement Team, said the MediLeaf owner is suspected of illegally selling marijuana and money laundering. Ayers said the investigations and raids came at the request of police chiefs in the county who said the proliferation of dispensaries was getting out of hand. The dispensaries are, investigators say, selling marijuana to people under false pretenses and are at risk of being taken over by organized gangs.
Ayers said officials believe the club owners are subverting the idea of helping seriously ill people. "All they are doing is providing people with the ability to buy marijuana at street-level prices in a storefront facility," she said.
Hours after Thursday's MediLeaf raids, Jonathan Mitchell, the Livermore owner of
New Age Healing Collective, surrendered to Santa Clara County authorities on felony charges of money laundering and possession for sale. He pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. His case marked the first criminal charges in the county since the medical marijuana clubs spread throughout San Jose more than a year ago. Dozens of other dispensary owners have been arrested but have not yet faced criminal charges.
Geoff Rawlings, Mitchell's lawyer, said the prosecution and the series of raids are misguided and based on a flawed interpretation of the state's complex web of laws, guidelines and court precedents.
"These people are not selling to some kid behind the bleachers," Rawlings said.
The raids shook already nervous and angry South Bay medical marijuana supporters, who quickly mobilized to protest, standing outside MediLeaf's shuttered clinics with signs saying "Our meds, our rights" and "Go raid a meth lab."
The raids, coming after an eight-month Santa Clara County Special Enforcement Team investigation, had an ironic aspect because Batzi Kuburovich, owner of MediLeaf, leads a San Jose group that promotes "best practices" to prove to police and politicians that the clinics are safe and hewing to the law.
"This is crap," said Kuburovich, who closed his Gilroy operation because of legal action from local authorities. "They are trying to scare everybody out through intimidation and fear."
On Monday, the San Jose City Council plans a study session to consider specific regulations, or alternatively, whether to pursue a ban on dispensaries.
City Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio, who supports regulation and taxation as opposed to an outright ban, showed up at MediLeaf's Meridian Avenue location for a few minutes after the raid. He had no comment on the raid, but he said that any theory that by accepting money for marijuana the clinics were illegal was "a farce."
"Meth is much more tragic and destructive to people's lives than medical cannabis," he said.
The raid and prosecution, and the threat of others, comes as the fate of medical marijuana in San Jose is in flux.
Late last year, narcotics agents began to raid dispensaries, warning that it appeared that they were operating illegally by making excessive profits from selling marijuana. The attorney general's guidelines prohibit the dispensaries from acting as profit-making businesses.
"Santa Clara County is in middle of a war," said Erika Taylor Montgomery, a medical marijuana patient and spokeswoman for the San Jose Cannabis Buyers Collective. "On one side are medical cannabis patients and providers. On other side is law enforcement wasting taxpayer resources to stop something voters approved in 1996."
The people behind that marijuana collective -- one of the city's first to open -- are sponsoring a benefit today to raise money to sue the narcotics task force. They plan to discuss the raids and to give free medical marijuana to patients. The event begins at 4:20 p.m. at MedEx Collective on Senter Road. The owner was arrested in a marijuana delivery sting by the task force earlier this year.
Posted: 12/09/2010 07:18:12 PM PST
By Sean Webby
Updated: 12/10/2010 09:09:04 AM PST
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