LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

Medical marijuana advocates demonstrate Wednesday outside the federal courthouse in Sacramento to protest the June 11 federal raid on the El Camino Wellness Center, the city's first licensed dispensary and one of its largest.

Rally at Sacramento federal courthouse questions fairness of marijuana raids

Published: Thursday, Jun. 21, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3B
Last Modified: Thursday, Jun. 21, 2012 - 9:21 am

As medical marijuana demonstrators waved signs – "Free my medicine!" and "Troops out of Sacramento!" – a co-founder of a Sacramento dispensary raided by U.S. authorities last week protested the action Wednesday in a rally outside the federal courthouse.

"The raid, on a state and locally compliant, not-for-profit collective, is not fair," said Suneet Agarwal, who operated the El Camino Wellness Center along with Nicholas Street. "The federal government's … actions are not right and not fair, and all we want is to be treated fairly."

On June 11, Internal Revenue Service and Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided the dispensary, one of the largest in the Sacramento area and the first to be issued a permit under a city regulatory program for medical marijuana establishments.

The IRS seized bank accounts for the dispensary and operators it claimed had taken in more than $870,000 in cumulative deposits between August 2011 and January 2012.

The raid underscored efforts by U.S. authorities to crack down on California dispensaries by employing laws traditionally used to target money transfers by narcotics traffickers.

Since last October, when U.S. prosecutors announced they would target purportedly nonprofit California dispensaries that they charged were "hijacked by profiteers," an estimated 400 dispensaries closed in the state amid threats of prosecution.

The El Camino Wellness Center stayed open and fought an eviction notice by its landlord after Sacramento U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner sent a letter threatening seizure of the property.

As a few dozen protesters gathered at the U.S. courthouse, Sacramento medical marijuana physician Dr. David Allen called on people serving on juries to refuse to convict defendants in cases involving medical marijuana.

No charges have been filed in the El Camino Wellness case. Still, James Anthony, a land-use attorney who represented the dispensary in its permit process with the city, urged Wagner to "reconsider how it is fair and just to devote this level of law enforcement resources to prosecute dispensaries that are compliant with state law."

Three days after the El Camino Wellness raid, authorities arrested three operators of a chain of medical marijuana stores in Southern California cities of Upland, Colton and Moreno Valley after the operators were indicted on federal drug trafficking charges.

Dan Rush of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represented El Camino Wellness Center workers, said 45 employees lost their jobs in the Sacramento raid. He said dispensary closures have cost about 3,000 total jobs statewide.

At the rally, Rush urged passage of pending legislation, AB 2312, to create statewide regulation for marijuana providers in hopes of curtailing federal raids.

The El Camino raid was also decried by Steve DeAngelo, executive director of the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, billed as the largest in the world. Harborside had been fighting a $2.4 million tax bill sought by the IRS under a tax statute designed to deny business deductions for narcotics traffickers.

"This campaign is being launched and directed by U.S. attorneys," DeAngelo said of the El Camino Wellness case. "Why are they still hanging on to this war on cannabis, which everybody else in this country has abandoned? The American people don't support it anymore."

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