Matthew Cohen, founder of Northstone Organics, a medical marijuana co-op north of Ukiah, was left with just a sprig after federal agents seized his 99 plants just as they were being harvested.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Agents on Thursday raided a medical marijuana cooperative that holds a Mendocino County sheriff's permit to grow medicinal pot, further demonstrating the gaping discrepancy between state and federal marijuana laws.
The seizure of 99 pot plants came less than a week after U.S. Justice Department prosecutors in California attorneys announced they would be cracking down on medical marijuana, which continues to be illegal under federal law 15 years after the state's voters approved it.
DEA officials declined to comment on the raid on Northstone Organics, located about 10 miles north of Ukiah in Redwood Valley.
The early morning operation shook the medical marijuana community because Northstone has been a model of compliance with local and state laws.
“I am really puzzled. There are plenty of illegal marijuana organizations in Mendocino County,” said Aaron Smith of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a business lobbying organization formed last year.
Medicinal marijuana advocates suspect the federal agents chose Northstone because it has been in the limelight. Northstone founder Matthew Cohen, an advocate of regulation, has been included in television documentaries as well as news articles on medicinal marijuana.
At a press conference Oct. 8 in Sacramento, the state's four U.S. Attorneys announced a crackdown on the medical marijuana business. “The California marijuana industry is not about providing medicine to the sick,” said Laura Duffy, the San Diego-based U.S. Attorney. “It's a pervasive, for-profit industry that violates federal law.”
Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, said dispensaries near schools, parks and other areas where children gather would get special attention from her office.
The Northstone co-op is in a rural area far from schools or parks. It is not a conventional dispensary in that it does not operate a store, but it does deliver marijuana to its members.
Cohen was among the first to obtain a permit from Mendocino County for his operation. County regulations allow up to 99 plants to be grown on a land parcel with a permit.
Sheriff Tom Allman said Cohen appears to have followed all of the county's regulations, which cost the cooperative about $8,500 a year.
The cooperative has been lauded by local officials for its efforts to conform to regulations. A county supervisor and sheriff's sergeant have testified on behalf of the cooperative in Sonoma County court. The case against two Northstone members — arrested while driving through Sonoma County to deliver marijuana to its member patients — is pending.
Allman on Thursday declined to comment on the DEA targeting an organization to which he's given a county stamp of approval.
But “clearly, state law and federal law do not agree,” Allman said.
Dale Gieringer of California's National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, called the federal operation a “shameful and despicable” assault on the county's progressive licensing program.
The program is aimed at protecting legitimate medicinal marijuana growers from having their plants seized. It's also added cash to the county law enforcement budget.
Cohen said the raid also may have been triggered by the criminal case in Sonoma County case, an example of the vagaries of pot regulations from county to county.
If there is a connection, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said it's news to her. She said she did not contact federal authorities about the Northstone case.
Cohen said he was shocked when machine-gun-wielding federal agents woke him up just after 6 a.m. to serve a search warrant. He said he was handcuffed while agents ripped out the plants, eliminating the year's crop and medicine for 1,700 patients. He was not arrested.
Gieringer and Smith contended the raid on Northstone did not make sense, politically or for public safety reasons. In their view, it serves the interests of illegal, black market marijuana dealers because it will drive more growers underground and cause a spike in pot prices, which have been on the decline.
“This is a victory for Mexican cartels,” Gieringer said.