Pot Club Crackdown
by Emily Huber
The federal Drug Enforcement Agency ratcheted up its crackdown on medical marijuana clubs this week, confiscating thousands of plants and arresting four men in the San Francisco Bay Area. While the DEA has raided medical marijuana clubs several times in recent months, the arrests on Feb. 13 mark the first time suspects have been taken into custody.
Just hours before DEA head Asa Hutchinson was scheduled to speak in San Francisco, DEA agents seized 600 marijuana plants from the Sixth Street Harm Reduction Center, a well-known medical marijuana club located in a gritty section of downtown.
"They were here when I got here yesterday morning," says David Witty, one of the center's directors. "They'd popped the locks and were hauling out plants when I arrived."
The DEA also served related search warrants around the Bay Area, confiscating thousands more plants and arresting three men connected to the center, including executive director Richard Watts at his home in San Francisco. Former director Kenneth Hayes was arrested by Canadian police on the same day in Vancouver, British Columbia, and may be deported to face a US arrest warrant. In what the DEA is calling a separate case, agents also arrested James Halloran in his Oakland home. All four of the men arrested in the US have been charged with the cultivation and possession of marijuana, charges which can mean up to forty years in prison.
In response to the raids, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Commonwealth Club of California where Hutchinson was scheduled to speak Tuesday evening. Among the demonstrators were San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan and several city council members.
"This city has been declared a sanctuary," for medical marijuana, Hallinan said. "This is such a misdirection of federal priorities they are cracking down on a bunch of sick people." Hallinan said that he has no doubts the raid was scheduled for Hutchinson's benefit.
The DEA, however, says the raids were just business as usual. "This was a long-term investigation and it just happened to coincide with Hutchinson's visit," DEA Special Agent Richard Meyer said. "We wouldn't put our agents at risk just to impress him."
California in 1996 legalized marijuana growing and consumption for people suffering from certain ailments. But federal law still bans marijuana use of any sort. After a long legal stalemate, a US Supreme Court ruling in May cleared the way for federal agents to move against medical marijuana. The DEA raided several California clubs last fall.
The Harm Reduction Center, at least for now, remains operational -- not as a marijuana dispensary, but as what David Witty calls a "living room" for the neighborhood. "I intend for the doors to be open every day of the year," Witty said. "People come here to feel safe. They really have no other place to go."