REDWOOD VALLEY – The U.S. drug agents' vehicles rumbled past vineyards and cattle ranches, traversed winding roads through oak woodlands and cleared a gate marked with a sign: "Member, Mendocino Farm Bureau."
Camouflaged and heavily armed, Drug Enforcement Administration officers brought a battering ram to the door of Matthew Cohen and a chain saw to cut down his 99 marijuana plants earlier this month.
The raid on Cohen's Northstone Organics garden, which boasted of "farm direct" marijuana deliveries to medical users, has stoked a fierce debate over whether federal authorities sought to nullify California's most renowned local regulatory program for medical marijuana cultivation.
In Mendocino County and beyond, Cohen, 34, was applauded as a leader who worked with local officials to initiate a program in which the sheriff issues $50 per-plant zip ties, with serial numbers, to enforce 99-plant limits for growers with dispensary contracts or documentation that they serve medical marijuana patients.
In a county infamous for black market marijuana growing and trafficking – and distrust of the government – nearly 100 local pot farmers signed up for the oversight program in two years. They paid more than $8,000 in annual fees each to let the sheriff inspect their gardens, count their plants and enforce environmental standards and rules for fencing and security.
Other Northern California counties were looking to emulate the Mendocino County model. Now those efforts are in doubt. And locals fear the raid may send Mendocino's pot culture scurrying back to its illicit past.
"It's paranoia season up here right now," said Fran Harris, who with her husband, James Taylor Jones, runs a tie-dyed clothing store in the town of Laytonville and grows marijuana for medical users under the county-supervised program. "Matt (Cohen) may have been targeted to send a message. He was trying to promote doing it the right way. And the federal message is there is no right way."
Cohen, who helped organize a Mendocino medical marijuana trade association called MendoGrown, was the public face for local pot regulation. He was profiled in documentaries such as the PBS show "Frontline" and a special on Australian television.
Dale Gieringer, California director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, said Mendocino's licensing and supervision of marijuana farmers was "the flagship program for outdoor regulation in the whole country, and probably the world."
But on Oct. 7, California's four U.S. attorneys declared a crackdown on the state's medical marijuana market.
San Francisco U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said the government would target "significant drug traffickers involved in the commercial cultivation and distribution of marijuana." That day, authorities unveiled charges against a North Hollywood dispensary accused of shipping hundreds of pounds of weed a month to New York and Pennsylvania and a Los Angeles lawyer who was said to have raked in millions of dollars from pot gardens supplying marijuana stores.
"We are making this announcement to put to rest the notion that large medical marijuana businesses can shelter themselves under state law and operate without fear of federal enforcement," Haag said.
The unexpected target
Marijuana activists didn't expect the next target would be Cohen, a philosophy major who dropped out of the University of Colorado and became part of the California medical cannabis movement.
He established himself among advocates by growing free pot and buying groceries for an Oakland woman with a brain tumor and seizures, Angel Raich. Cohen signed on as one of two "John Doe" caregivers in a case Raich took to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004. It ended with the high court affirming a federal ban on marijuana as medicine.
In Mendocino County, Cohen founded Northstone Organics, a farm and delivery service that supplied medical marijuana users in nine Bay Area counties and Los Angeles.
Cohen, who is critical of retail-style marijuana dispensaries, claimed to offer a true nonprofit model under state law. And he promised "sun-grown medical cannabis delivered discreetly to your door."
Federal authorities are scornful of pot deliveries. On Oct. 13, Cohen was indiscreetly greeted with a battering ram at his door.
"You don't have to knock it down. I'll open it," the tall, pony-tailed Cohen said he shouted to DEA agents. "And please don't shoot the dogs."
Cohen said officers handcuffed him and his wife, Courtenay, 31, demanding to know where he kept guns and cash. He said he had no weapons and just $5. They were restrained for hours as agents cut down and packed up his harvest-ready marijuana plants, Cohen said.
When he argued he was licensed by the county, Cohen said, one of the DEA agents told him the Mendocino program was "a sham."
DEA Special Agent Casey McEnry in San Francisco confirmed the raid occurred but declined to give details on the case or what prompted the raid. No charges have been filed.
Federal motivation questioned
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, notified of the raid shortly beforehand, defended local efforts to regulate medical marijuana cultivation. The county restricts medicinal growers to 25 plants per property but allows residents with 5 acres or more to apply for special permits to grow a maximum of 99 plants.
"I would clearly say that what Matt Cohen was doing was in full compliance with our ordinance. And he was not violating Proposition 215," the California medical marijuana law "under the interpretation we have," Allman said.
Weeks before the raid, Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen and a sheriff's sergeant supervising the marijuana zip-tie program testified for the defense in a Sonoma County preliminary hearing for two of Cohen's drivers charged with transporting pot for sale. They were stopped on two days in 2010 with a total of 2.3 pounds of marijuana in bags for 35 registered medical users.
The Mendocino officials testified Northstone was operating legally under their county's ordinance. Cohen and his lawyer say that infuriated Sonoma prosecutors. They suggested the neighboring county called the feds, triggering the raid on Northstone.
"The very day that they testified was the very day that the DEA did a flyover of Mr. Cohen's property," said William Panzer, a co-author of California's medical marijuana law and attorney for the two drivers, Daniel Harwood, 33, of Willits and Timothy Tangney, 29, of Lucerne. "Maybe that's a coincidence."
Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar said he isn't aware that anyone in Sonoma contacted federal officials, saying "I think it's merely speculation." After the DEA raid, a judge granted the defense a two-month delay in the Sonoma case.
On Thursday, an Oakland-based medical marijuana advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access, sued Haag and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, demanding return of the marijuana seized at Northstone Organics.
Meanwhile, McCowen said he was outraged over what he viewed as a federal attack on Mendocino's attempt to bring its marijuana culture into compliance with state and local laws.
"I really question the motivation of the federal authorities," he said. "This effort will drive medical marijuana back underground, increase black market diversion and keep marijuana, illegal, dangerous and profitable."
Supervisor Mark Lovelace of neighboring Humboldt, one of three counties that sent officials to Cohen's garden to study the Mendocino compliance program, said the action undermined hopes to rein in unbridled marijuana cultivation in rural California counties through local oversight.
"It's really frustrating. Prohibition prevents regulation," Lovelace said.
Haag, the San Francisco U.S. attorney, had declared the government would go after California medical marijuana operations that had been "hijacked by profiteers."
Cohen insists he isn't one of them. He says he declared personal bankruptcy a year ago after investing his savings and an inheritance in Northstone Organics. He began earning a salary – $1,900 every two weeks – a couple of months ago. He says he expected to do better financially over time.
Chill on pot culture
The raid on Cohen's property has sent a chill though Mendocino, where the county's pot heritage – and harvest – is celebrated each December. Last year, the local "Emerald Cup" festival awarded designer bongs to growers of prize-winning Mendo cannabis from "Sour Best –––– Ever" to "Pure Blueberry Hash."
Marvin Levin, director of the Mendocino Farmers Cooperative, an organization of outdoor pot growers that sponsors the Emerald Cup, said he is unsure the event will go on amid an atmosphere of fear.
The Farmers Cooperative also abruptly closed down its Laytonville dispensary after the DEA raid. "I don't know what to make of it. I just don't like the stress," Levin said.
Cohen, waiting to see if he will face federal charges, doesn't expect Northstone Organics to return.
"If their point was to make a threat, they accomplished it," he said, standing amid his leveled marijuana garden. "They scared the pants off of growers who wanted to participate in the (county) program. And I'm not growing next year, no way."