SEBASTOPOL, Calif. — First came the snarling guard dogs, then the barbed-wire fence and 24-hour security patrols, all of it smack in the middle of a leafy neighborhood on the outskirts of this wine country town.
Residents along Martin Lane reached a collective conclusion this summer: Robert Schmidt's medicinal pot farm was a problem. An armed camp, they called it. A magnet for thieves. A danger to neighborhood kids.
Their worries seemed to abate when carbine-toting federal drug agents rumbled in Sept. 12, arrested Schmidt and uprooted 3,454 marijuana plants reputedly intended as medicine. But concern lingers on this dead-end gravel lane in the heart of get-along Sonoma County.
Schmidt's neighbors remain perplexed that their pleas for help went unheeded for so long. But they're also troubled that Schmidt, 52, could face a long prison sentence--10 years to life--for what they consider a desire to help the sick. The punishment, they say, doesn't fit what should have been simply a residential zoning violation.
"Here in California," concluded Jayne Garrison, a neighbor, "we're living in a legal twilight zone when it comes to medical marijuana."
The latest clash on Martin Lane is only one of many messy conflicts to erupt since 1996 when California voters approved Proposition 215, the landmark initiative that made medical use of marijuana legal under state law but set up a testy conflict with the federal government's unwavering prohibitions on pot.
The fight has centered on the more than 50 nonprofit cannabis dispensaries that have sprung up in California since the initiative passed. Though it allows patients or caregivers with a physician's recommendation to grow pot for their own use, dispensaries were fashioned as sources for shut-ins or those too ill to cultivate the plant they had permission to use. Growers like Schmidt supplied such dispensaries.
Over the last year, the rift between the state and the U.S. has only widened. In May 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that federal law doesn't allow a medical exception for marijuana use. Although eight other states allow medical use of pot, California has remained the top target. Federal drug officials say growers in the Golden State are simply more visible--thus easier to arrest--and apt to bring raids to the attention of the news media.
As more growers have been busted, advocates for the medical use of pot have increasingly voiced outrage, in particular over a Sept. 5 raid that shut down a collective in Santa Cruz; activists countered by defiantly distributing marijuana in front of City Hall last week.
The conflict flared again Monday, as police arrested about 30 demonstrators blocking a federal courthouse in Sacramento to protest the conviction of the leader of a Chico dispensary of marijuana for medical use. Federal drug agents also are targeting small operations once considered not worth the bother. On Tuesday, drug enforcement agents uprooted a San Diego activist's 26-plant pot garden.
"It's a very controversial issue, this so-called medical marijuana," said Richard Meyer, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman in San Francisco. "But we get lots of calls from communities thanking us."
Residents on Sebastopol's Martin Lane didn't know what to make of Schmidt when he swept into the neighborhood last spring, renting a farmhouse atop six acres at the end of the road. Schmidt, now being held in a Bay Area jail, could not be reached for comment, and his attorney, Alexandra McClure, declined to discuss the case.
With his beard and gray ponytail, Schmidt seemed a cross between Willie Nelson and Col. Sanders, neighbors said. He rode horses, fancied western garb and sometimes clomped around in a black duster. Schmidt was friendly, they say, with a dash of bravado. Among advocates for medicinal use of marijuana, Schmidt styled himself the "cannabis cowboy." He told folks on the lane his crop would consist of sunflowers and corn. But he also referred them to a Web site for "Genesis 1:29," the marijuana operation Schmidt established shortly after California became the first of nine states in the U.S. to legalize medical use of marijuana.
For its first years, Genesis sat shoehorned in a Petaluma subdivision, 20 miles down the freeway. But in 1999, armed robbers burst in and stole 50 plants at gunpoint.
His neighbors griped, and Schmidt moved Genesis 1:29 (named for a Bible verse about God inviting man to use all of Earth's seed-bearing plants as food) to a business park. Eventually he found the farm on Martin Lane.