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Medical marijuana supporters fuming over Westside dispensary raids

Three actions by DEA teams Tuesday point up the continuing conflict between federal and state drug laws. Some had hoped an Obama administration would change the dynamic.

February 05, 2009|Corina Knoll

A raid by federal agents of several Westside medical marijuana dispensaries has generated outrage among advocates of the drug, some of whom had expressed hope that the federal government would halt such crackdowns once President Obama took office.

At least three groups of officers with the Drug Enforcement Administration simultaneously served search warrants on dispensaries Tuesday about noon, said Sarah Pullen, a DEA spokeswoman.

"I can't get into details as to the probable cause behind the warrants except for the fact that they're dealing with marijuana, which is illegal under federal law," she said.

State law, however, is a different matter. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for seriously ill patients and reduced criminal penalties for possession. But that conflicts with federal law.

Medical marijuana advocates were hopeful when Obama, while on the campaign trail, said he supported prescriptions for medical marijuana as long as the drug was regulated and that he didn't plan to use Justice Department resources to circumvent state laws. Tuesday's raids showed that, so far, things haven't changed.

"The local government is trying to implement Prop. 215, but while they're doing that we've got the federal government intimidating property owners and raiding facilities," said Don Duncan, co-founder of Americans for Safe Access, which promotes safe and legal access to marijuana. The group is planning a noon rally today at the L.A. federal building.

"What would be best for the people in California is if the federal government backed off and let the local government regulate this issue."

L.A. City Council members placed a moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries in 2007 while they weighed whether to tighten city regulation of them.

"Until we get something on the books, we're going to have more of these conflicts," Councilman Dennis Zine said.

Federal agents make a handful of dispensary raids each year in Los Angeles.

"DEA has a legal right to do what they're doing," said Charlie Beck, chief of detectives at the Los Angeles Police Department. "Is it controversial? Yes."

At the heart of the controversy are places like the Beach Center Collective in Playa del Rey, where an employee said DEA officers confiscated so much property Tuesday that it would not be able to reopen.

"They took everything," said the 32-year-old employee, who asked not to be named out of fear of prosecution.

"You name it, they took it -- right down to the television. The computer, patient files, medicine, cash in the register -- that's it, we're done."

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, said it's up to the Obama administration to resolve the dispute.

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corina.knoll@latimes.com

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