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Chem Tales: Conflict and Corruption 

Wednesday, Jul 20 2016
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In states that have legalized the sale of medical and recreational cannabis, the industry is flourishing. State and local laws have done great work in creating policies and laws that give such businesses a sense of stability that allow them to make business decisions with some confidence. But federal laws still regard cannabis as a Schedule 1 narcotic and have not only closed access to reliable banking, the U.S. Postal Service, and fair tax laws, but there is also the constant threat of law enforcement raids, lengthy and expensive court battles, and prison sentences.

Even in states that have legalized cannabis, federal law has created a climate of fear and uncertainty among cannabis entrepreneurs, and some politicians and law enforcement officers are exploiting that fear to enrich themselves. There are numerous examples of this type of corruption. In fact, The Daily Chronic, an online news source that covers the cannabis community, has a pages-long section devoted to cannabis-related police corruption nationwide

That's one reason why it is critically important that the conflicts between state and federal marijuana laws are resolved as soon as possible.

In California, where medical cannabis is a multibillion industry, there are numerous incidents of public pot corruption that have been exposed, which suggests a great deal more remains in the shadows. Recent examples include the embarrassing arrest of Sheriff's Deputy Mark Heath, with the Yuba County Drug Task Force. Heath was busted in Pennsylvania with 200 pounds of cannabis, worth approximately $2 million. The Yuba County District Attorney's Office is now reviewing 62 drug cases in which Heath was instrumental in obtaining convictions. The review will be very costly to taxpayers and further strain an office that is already short-staffed. And the review could result in the release of dozens of convicted felons, some of whom have records of violent offenses.

In 2015, two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, Julio Cesar Martinez, 39, and Anthony Manuel Paez, 32, were charged with obstructing justice and altering evidence when it was discovered they had planted guns and ecstasy pills in order to justify a raid on the Superior Herbal Health dispensary in South L.A. A video surveillance system caught the two deputies planting guns and ecstasy tablets in order to justify the warrantless 2011 raid. Again, the two deputies' corruption had a ripple effect by putting any drug busts that resulted in convictions in jeopardy, embarrassing the DA's Office and harming its ability to prosecute more serious cases, and causing an overall loss of faith in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office.

Perhaps the worst incident of corruption and abuse of power was the 2015 raid on Sky High Holistic in Santa Ana. Numerous Santa Ana police officers, some wearing ski masks, smashed in a door at the dispensary and then stormed in with automatic weapons drawn. One of the officers smashed five video cameras, though he missed four others that recorded the ugly scene. According to a federal lawsuit, the police did more than $100,000 in damage to dispensary property. There were several patients in the dispensary and all were made to lay on the ground at gunpoint. One dispensary volunteer, Marla James, an amputee who uses a wheelchair, was escorted out and later disparaged by officers.

"Did you punch that one-legged old Benita," a male officer asks a female officer in a video of the raid. She responds by saying, "I was about to kick her in her fucking nub."

Once the officers believe they are not being surveilled, they relax and begin playing darts and eating what looks like cannabis-infused baked goods. One officer joked that he was feeling "light headed." The Santa Ana district attorney claimed they were eating Detour Simple protein bars and Mrs. Thinster cookies that belonged to the dispensary staff.

But the outrageous behavior did not end there. In a federal lawsuit filed in 2015, Sky High Holistic alleges that Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido solicited $25,000 in bribes from medical marijuana dispensaries for favorable positioning in a lottery that would award licenses for 20 dispensaries. The suit also alleges Pulido conspired to sponsor a measure that gave him more authority over the city's dispensaries, which in turn strengthened his ability to extort bribes. Furthermore, the complaint claims Pulido has an interest in one of the dispensaries that won the lottery, which further draws into question his role in the Sky High Holistic raid.

"There's no doubt that the conflict between federal and state law is the reason there's public corruption in the medical marijuana industry," said Matthew Papa, the attorney for Sky High Holistic who filed the suit. "It creates an environment where police and city officials can engage in conduct that's illegal. It's absurd. And it's not just what you see in the newspapers; it happens all over Southern California."

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John Geluardi

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