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After an eight-month investigation, LAPD narco squad officers and Federal Internal Revenue (IRS) agents raided a medical cannabis club operating in West Hollywood, arresting 14 people and seizing 800 pounds of marijuana product (wholesale value, $2.5 million; retail value over $5 million) and between $300-500,000 in cash.
City officials both applauded and booed the bust by another jurisdiction's law enforcement agency. "We support any law enforcement agency's removing from our neighborhoods any business involved in illegal activity," said Helen Goss, city communications director. But condemnation of the tactics buzzed through city hall. One city staffer told WeHoNews that he felt violated. Jeff Prang, city council member and a deputy sheriff himself, decried the raid into the city from a neighboring city’s law enforcement agency, even though routine warrants are often served inter-jurisdictionally.
"This was not routine in any way...I don't want LAPD conducting any more of these raid in our city," Mr. Prang said point-blank. "It is the City council's intention to act as arbiter of what is lawful in our community, not LAPD."
The targeted club, Compassionate Caregivers located at 1209 N. La Brea Ave and commonly known as the "Yellow House," had been under surveillance by LAPD since September 2004 after the arrest of a Compassionate Caregiver patron with 60 marijuana plants in his possession, all allegedly purchased at Yellow House.
According to LAPD spokesperson Sgt. Plow, that surveillance found that the club allegedly sold large amounts of marijuana to customers on a regular, sometimes daily, basis. State law forbids the sale of more than eight ounces of medical marijuana to a patient at one time. "We formed the opinion that the club was in violation of Health & Safety Code 11360 (transportation, distribution or importation of controlled substances) through the surveillance," Sgt. Plows told WeHoNews.com. "They regularly sold 8 ounce and one pound quantities to people who made sometimes daily buys. There were an average of 235 visits a day to the house. That's drug dealing, not medicine dispensing."
Acknowledging that the IRS had been involved in the months' long investigation, Sgt. Plow said, "The key to [IRS involvement] in this raid was the money-laundering investigation [the IRS] is conducting into these businesses. This one was obviously set up for profit, and the law says they should be non-profit."
LAPD arrested employees and patrons en masse and charged 13 people with felony counts of H&SC 11366 (maintaining a place for selling, giving, using controlled substances); one man allegedly holding 21 grams of marijuana but no letter of recommendation identifying him as a medicinal marijuana user was charged with a misdemeanor count of possession.
Most of those arrested were bailed out the following morning and are being represented by West Hollywood lawyer Bruce Margolin. Mr. Margolin's website states that he was "an advisor for the California Compassionate Use Act - Prop. 215...He is the author of "The Margolin Guide To Marijuana Laws" and is unarguably the nation's foremost authority on marijuana law." Calls to Mr. Margolin, who is traveling, went unreturned before press time. Calls to the IRS went unreturned by press time as well.
As to LAPD's plans to crack down on the other six clubs still operating in West Hollywood, Sgt Plow told WeHoNews that no other clubs, so far as she had been told, were under surveillance by LAPD. "That doesn't mean they aren't surveilling, it only means they don't tell me what they are doing," she said. "This surveillance began with a lead from another arrest; LAPD has no plans to raid other clubs [in West Hollywood]."
According to Kristin Cook of the city's public safety staff, such inter-jurisdictional investigations are quite common, especially in drug cases. "This case was unusual because the 'gentleman's agreement' that exists between agencies about prior notification of a major raid didn't happen," she said. "The city and the [Sheriff's] station are displeased at the short notice we received."
Capt. David Long, chief of the West Hollywood Sheriff's Station, told WeHoNews.com that "they did give us a 15 minute notice as a courtesy and safety measure, but I would have liked a little bit more information and time before they came in. "I can't say they won't come in again, but we will see to it that they won't come in without prior knowledge," Capt. Long said.
Ms. Cook acknowledged that discussions on the controversy had begun between municipalities. Sgt. Plows told WeHoNews.com that LAPD Chief William Bratton and Sheriff Lee Baca had already spoken about the raid and bettering inter-agency communication.
"From our perspective," Sgt. Plow said, "this was a routine raid until we found so much product and cash." Mr. Prang told WeHoNews.com that news of "so much product and cash" at the business heightened his concerns for the public's safety, making it more urgent that regulations be put in place to protect the residents from the dangers a concentration of medical marijuana distributors posed.
"When you have businessmen who keep that much marijuana and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, and guns, in their shops, they're going to be targets for violent crime," he said. "My concern is these guns near residential neighborhoods; money, drugs and guns invite disaster."
Susan Healy Keene, acting director of community development for West Hollywood informed WeHoNews.com that the first "all-hands" meeting of the committee put together to explore regulating medical marijuana facilities in the city would meet Wed., May 11 at city hall. She said that the committee would look at a wide range of issues, including safety issues and neighborhood impacts, revenue assessments, among others.
The founder of West Hollywood's first opened - and first raided and closed - medical marijuana co-op, Scott Imler said, "It's about time [the city] began putting some thought into this; this raid is the unfortunate result of their 'don't ask, don't tell' policy since the LACRC raid (Mr. Imler's co-op was shut down in 2001 by the Bush Administration; he escaped with a relative slap on the wrist - one year probation). "They got stung and are still dealing with a $300,000 lawsuit [with the Dept. of Justice over the raid], so it's understandable that they would be reluctant to regulate. But now they are beset with all these clubs they know nothing about. They have to try to find out what's going on inside them."
For Mr. Prang's part, "this is an issue about which I and the entire council feel strongly. Patients ought to have access to the medicine they need. West Hollywood is a strong supporter of patients' right to obtain medical marijuana. We do not condone drug dealing in our city. We do not approve of otherwise healthy people abusing the system by obtaining letters from 'pot docs' to use medicinal marijuana recreationally," he said.
"We acknowledge that problems arise because of the rapid proliferation of these clubs in our small city, and we will regulate them so that they can provide their service and medicine safely in our community."
Man that sucks. Good thing there is another one or two down the street. I hope they get left alone.
-------------------- 1. "After an hour I wasn't feeling anything so I decided to take another..."
2. "We were feeling pretty good so we decided to smoke a few bowls..."
3. "I had to be real quiet because my parents were asleep upstairs..."