Medical-pot advocates demonstrated at the site of a California Narcotics Officers Association awards ceremony last week (photo by David Rolland).
After four months of undercover investigations of 14 medical-cannabis collectives and stakeouts of the proprietors' homes, law enforcement didn't learn much that the average patient didn't already know.
According to eight search-warrant affidavits filed in Superior Court and two filed in Federal District Court, law enforcement learned that, yes, if a client has a valid medical-cannabis recommendation from a doctor, he can gain access to a private room where he can purchase marijuana.
The undercover officers argued that since, in most cases, the dispensaries turned down their offers to volunteer work in exchange for marijuana, the organizations' claims of being collectives were false—although several providers told CityBeat that all products are supplied by members of the collectives. In every affidavit, the officers attached printouts of user reviews from Weedmaps.com.
That was enough for Superior Court Judge Robert Trentacosta to agree that probable cause existed to issue search warrants.
“It was kind of bogus, to be honest with you,” Frank Jones, manager of Nature's RX and one of the individuals under surveillance, told CityBeat. “Truly, we did everything we could do to be legal. We called the doctors, made copies of everything—we have the clients sign the agreements to join our collective. How does that make us in the wrong?”
Patrick Dudley, an attorney representing a Hillcrest Compassion Care employee, said that if District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis is going to call these dispensaries law-breakers, she should first write guidelines for dispensaries to break. “I think the truth's going to come out that a majority of these folks were doing their best to comply with the law,” Dudley said. “If she wants A-B-C-D-F-G, we'll do it—just give us some guidance.
Dumanis' spokesperson, Paul Levikow, requested questions from CityBeat in writing, but did not respond with answers before deadline.
California's medical-pot organizations operate in a largely untested gray area of law. Yet, the only clear crime throughout the sting was perpetrated by the police.
In order to receive bona-fide cannabis recommendations, the officers visited Dr. Ronald Clark's MC2 clinic, provided fake identities and lied about medical conditions. For regular citizens, that's a violation of the California Health and Safety Code; it's unclear whether police officers are allowed to engage in this type of deception.
“I think it's problematic that's what law enforcement is doing,” Dudley says. “It is interesting that officers are committing a violation of criminal law in order to basically augment their investigation.”
When the raids went down, MC2 immediately began marking files as “narcotics officer” or, simply, “liar.” On reviewing the files, administrative manager Cletus Greathouse determined that officers pretended to suffer from maladies such as insomnia, anxiety, back pain and nausea.
“One guy was so stupid that he used his real name,” MC2 general manager Chip Perry said.
Carrying legitimate recommendations, fake parole cards and clandestine recording devices, officers ran two to three undercover buys at each establishment. The officers offered to volunteer (including free dry-walling) with the collectives and reported, “at no time during any of these undercover purchases of marijuana and other items was [the detective] ever asked to assist with or participate in the collective or cooperative.”
Certainly, the undercover officers did witness suspicious activity. On several occasions, store clerks had no problem doling out marijuana when the officer suggested that he was buying for his girlfriend. At Total Herbal Care, an officer engaged two patients who “appeared healthy” in a conversation about faking illnesses in order to obtain marijuana.
“One of the males laughed and stated he had used anxiety as the reason,” the officer wrote in the affidavit.
According to another affidavit, Jovan Jackson, who runs Answerdam RX and had been busted under similar circumstance earlier in the year, recognized one of the cops parked outside. But it was too late: An undercover cop was already in the establishment. Jackson could not be reached for comment.
As the raids approached, the officers called each dispensary to ask whether specific strains were on hand to ascertain whether they were still in operation. Some dispensaries answered the questions or recommended other varieties. Others, such as Green Tree Solutions, were more cautious, telling the undercover cop they could not discuss it over the phone.
“How about you stop by yourself and not talk about illegal stuff over the phone,” a Pacific Beach Collective employee told the officer.
Cops also tailed employees to find out what cars they drive and where they live. Police followed Aaron Ralstin of Total Herbal Care as rode his bicycle to smoke shops on his way to work. Officers also showed pictures of employees to neighbors to confirm that they lived at particular addresses.
In arguing for probably cause, law enforcement said the dispensaries distribute marijuana to patients on an “ad hoc basis” without having a true “primary caregiver” relationship.
Caregivers may associate under collectives or cooperatives, but only on a nonprofit basis, police say in the affidavits. However, none of the affidavits provided evidence that the dispensaries turned a profit. In the case of Hillcrest Compassion Care, the officer deposited his payment in a basket marked “donations” on the counter.
The case for probable cause all comes back to Weedmaps.com, a site launched in August 2008 that boasts 12,000 registered members who post an average of 125 reviews daily.
The affidavits say the users “suggest by their review that their main purpose for going to the dispensary was merely to purchase high quality marijuana and not to participate in some sort of collective or collaborative marijuana cultivation.”
Weedmaps.com manager Justin Hartfield said patients often must rely on anecdotes from peers to determine which strains would be most effective for their particular conditions. The news that police relied so heavily on the site won't affect Weedmaps.com's practice of allowing users to comment freely.
“I re-read Prop. 215 and I didn't find any provision that excluded patients from reviewing the potency of marijuana, so it's curious that they would use that type of language,” Hartfield says. “I think it does go to show that Weedmaps has been very effective in advertising.”
Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Would you like your online comment to be considered for publication in our print edition? Include your true full name and neighborhood of residence.