Saturday, January 14, 2006

Police hit medical-pot store

OC Register

Police say workers weren't checking doctors' orders. No one is arrested.


TUSTIN – A medical-marijuana dispensary that police said served 60 to 70 people a day was raided Friday after investigators said that employees were not verifying doctors' recommendations.

The raid was believed to be the first at an Orange County marijuana dispensary.

No one was arrested, but several pounds of marijuana and undisclosed amounts of hashish and hashish oil were seized. The Orange County District's Attorney's Office will decide whether to file criminal charges, which Tustin police Lt. Jim Peery said could include possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

The search ended a five- month investigation into Legal Ease, which opened last summer in a Main Street strip mall and was licensed to sell herbal remedies. Police said they began surveillance in August, and at least three undercover officers bought marijuana after presenting fictitious doctor's notes.

"This was nothing more than drug dealers using a storefront as opposed to selling out of the back of the car," Peery said. "We understand what legal marijuana for medicinal purposes is, but in this case, we're confident these people were using a storefront."

Legal Ease owner Steve Verbanac, who also operates marijuana cooperatives in San Diego and San Marcos, said his company's policy is to verify every doctor's recommendation before dispensing marijuana.

"I feel like we've just been robbed again by a government agency," said Verbanac, 66, whose San Diego shop was raided last month. "And now people are going to be without the benefit of being able to go to the facility and get the medicine they need."

The raid illuminates a gray area in California's marijuana laws. Proposition 215 legalized the medical use of the drug, but no state law addresses how cooperatives such as Verbanac's can distribute marijuana legally.

Peery said undercover officers presented a doctor's note and were taken into a locked room, where they chose from an assortment of cannabis products, including cookies and brownies. A chalkboard menu listed types of marijuana available, with prices topping out at $400-$600 an ounce, he said.

Investigators reported seeing apparently healthy patients obtaining drugs at Legal Ease as well as what appeared to be drug deals in the parking lot, Peery said.

Philip Denney, a Lake Forest family practitioner, said Legal Ease is one of about six or seven Orange County marijuana dispensaries to which he sends patients. Legal Ease employees called to verify his referrals every time, he said.

"They have a good reputation for being reasonable and for having a selection of high-quality medicine," Denney said. "Now we have literally thousands of patients who are going to be forced to try to find a drug dealer in a bar."

Proponents say marijuana stimulates a patient's appetite, controls nausea and relieves pain.

Even if marijuana had not been sold to the undercover officers, police would have shut down the operation because the business permit doesn't specify the sale of marijuana, Peery said.

Mayor Doug Davert said the raid was "not politically driven."

"Since I've been on the council, this hasn't come up as a policy discussion," Davert said. "Nobody in the council is saying, 'We need to make a statement here.'"

Whether marijuana dispensaries are legal in California is unclear. Federal law prohibits the sale of marijuana, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has raided dozens of medical marijuana growers and clubs in California.

Patients and their primary caregivers are exempt from criminal prosecution in California for possessing and growing a limited amount of marijuana, but dispensaries and cannabis clubs don't share that protection, said William Kroger, a Beverly Hills lawyer specializing in such cases.

Marijuana dispensaries often follow guidelines created by individual cities. Or they operate quietly.

"There's no black and white line," Kroger said. " So city by city, they're creating ordinances that regulate how they can be opened and what kind of guidelines should be followed. If they don't have them, law enforcement can do what they want."

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