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DEA Agents Raid Marijuana Club

Health: Equipment, 331 plants seized from San Francisco operation supplying pot to AIDS and cancer patients. Prop. 215 backers fear crackdown.

April 22, 1997|MARIA L. LA GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Ratcheting up its battle against facilities that distribute marijuana to AIDS and cancer patients, federal authorities Monday raided a small supplier, confiscating 331 plants and a variety of growing equipment.

The early morning raid at Flower Therapy was the Drug Enforcement Administration's first crackdown on such a supplier since California voters resoundingly passed Proposition 215 in November, legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.

"This would be the first federal involvement in a raid on a supplier operation like this," said Dave Fratello, spokesman for Americans for Medical Rights, the sponsor of Proposition 215. "The thing that's got people scared across the state right now is that they're wondering if this is the beginning of a crackdown against buyers' clubs good or bad."

Fratello estimates that there are more than a dozen "respectable and deep-rooted operations in California" selling marijuana to patients who have a doctor's prescription. The most celebrated are here in the Bay Area, with its high concentration of AIDS patients. Three operate now in San Francisco, two in Santa Cruz and one each in Oakland and Los Angeles.

DEA spokesman Stan Vegar would not comment on the federal efforts against medical marijuana operations. The early morning raid at Flower Therapy stemmed from a DEA investigation and a TV report this month.

"We were real interested in the visuals," Vegar said of the broadcast. "Great visuals. Showed the whole operation . . . a large-scale, hydroponic marijuana cultivation."

There were no arrests stemming from the search and seizure, Vegar said, but the investigation is continuing. Last month, the DEA seized 8,000 marijuana plants in a raid on a grower in Humboldt County, Vegar said. Although the medical use of marijuana is legal under California law, the use of marijuana remains a crime under federal law.

Flower Therapy spokesman Gary Johnson, an AIDS patient with a prescription for marijuana, said DEA agents kicked down the door of the Mission district facility about 6 a.m. and took the plants and equipment, along with financial records for the business, which sells marijuana to about 1,000 patients.

"We have a business license, a million-dollar insurance policy," Johnson said. Flower Therapy has "worked with the health department, the San Francisco Police Department, trying to run a medical marijuana operation that was above reproach. This was a very bad case for [the DEA]."

Flower Therapy opened its doors after Proposition 215 passed. The area's largest such operation, the Cannabis Cultivators Club, reopened in January, five months after being shut down by state narcotics officers. State charges are pending in Alameda County.

Flower Therapy got into trouble with the DEA because of its large-scale operation. Cannabis Cultivators and other suppliers are considering expanded cultivation efforts.

Flower Therapy, said Fratello, "has taken very, very careful steps to screen their clients to ensure that they're legitimate patients. [The DEA] is highlighting that by raiding one of the good ones. . . . I think this is very significant and could foretell a crackdown on all the clubs."

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