Thursday, June 26, 2008


A trickle of rumors that started on anonymous blogs in recent weeks was mostly discounted as a hoax by many of the hundreds of people who commented on the posts' warning that a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency action was on the way.

Tuesday's raids, which brought a small army of federal agents who said they were here to bust a single organized marijuana-growing operation focused mostly in Southern Humboldt, weren't the swarm of agents rumored to have been planning a crackdown on large-scale medical marijuana grow houses and pot dispensaries in Arcata this week.

But it was close.

Wherever the anonymous information on the Humboldt Herald blog came from, the timing and accuracy of the anonymous tips turned out to be surprisingly accurate -- as the federal official who confirmed the operation Tuesday admitted.

"There was some accuracy to the rumors and the dates were pinned down pretty well," said FBI Special Agent Joseph Schadler Tuesday.

But as the tempo of the rumors picked up pace last week, an in-depth story effort launched by The Eureka Reporter staff to verify the rumors proved difficult, as many local law enforcement agencies didn't respond to calls and comments from federal agencies left more questions than answers.

Calls to the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office were directed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation office in San Francisco.

On Friday, FBI spokesperson Patti Hansen wouldn't confirm or deny that agents would be in Humboldt County this week, although DEA officials told KMUD radio station that the DEA was planning training exercises in northern Mendocino County set for this week, including flyover missions that might cross over into Humboldt County.

"Our DEA is conducting annual training in the area next week," said DEA spokesperson Casey McEnry in an interview Friday. The DEA regularly comes to the area to train with other agencies.

As to what agencies would participate in the training exercises, McEnry said she wasn't sure which ones planned to attend.

When asked whether the DEA planned to investigate or conduct raids on "grow houses" in the area, McEnry said it planned to conduct "aerial observation" training exercises.

"Whatever comes of that, I don't know," she said, adding the agency couldn't disclose that kind of information anyway.

In Arcata -- whose marijuana grow houses have been in the spotlight of recent national media attention -- rumors of an impending drug raid spread throughout the community.

At some of the four known medical marijuana dispensaries within Arcata city limits, employees were reluctant to comment to questions about the rumored raid.

A moratorium on marijuana growing prevents the dispensaries from growing their own plants.

The issue of illegal marijuana grow houses in Arcata came to a head in fall 2007, when several house fires were a direct result of indoor marijuana grow scenes.

In subsequent months, the Arcata City Council and its Planning Commission struggled to find remedies that appeased marijuana advocates and opponents.


Feds in Humboldt County -- There's precedent

This week's operation that brought 450 federal officers to the county wasn't the first time federal law enforcement agents made an impressive showing in Humboldt County to target marijuana with large-scale, coordinated operations.

A surprise, nearly two-week-long marijuana eradication raid in July 1990, called "Operation Green Sweep," by an estimated 200 California National Guard soldiers and Bureau of Land Management agents sealed off approximately 640 acres in the King Range National Conservation Area, according to archived Times-Standard articles.

It was reportedly the first operation of its kind in U.S. history in which the military assisted in marijuana eradication.

It was reported that the raids were part of a national effort by then-President George H.W. Bush to convince Colombian leaders -- skeptical of U.S. troops efforts to eradicate drugs in their country - -- that the U.S. was serious about eradicating drugs at home.

Residents who witnessed the raids reportedly reacted with outrage and anger at the armed soldiers who pointed rifles at residents, which led to a lawsuit by the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project that resulted in guidelines for drug eradication in Northern California.

The operation netted 11 arrests and 1,408 marijuana plants worth $4.2 million.

Another visit by the DEA in 2003 as part of "Operation Pipedreams" and "Operation Headhunter" targeted vendors who sold drug paraphernalia across state lines via the Internet, which led to the arrest of three Arcata businessmen who owned 101 North Glass Inc.


Federal laws trump state marijuana laws

Pulling out a 215 card won't protect marijuana growers under the federal government's laws.

When California voters passed Proposition 215 -- also known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 -- it allowed medical marijuana patients to use "up to three pounds of marijuana per year" and to grow up to 99 indoor or outdoor plants at one time.

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered setbacks for the state's medical marijuana users in 2001 when it upheld in a ruling that "given the absence of medical usefulness, medical necessity is not a defense to marijuana prosecution" and again in 2005 when it upheld that the federal government can prosecute medical marijuana patients regardless of a state's compassionate use laws.

While marijuana is classified federally as a Schedule I substance, which means it is listed as having high potential for abuse and no medicinal value, the county's lead law enforcement official takes a different stance.

"The Humboldt County District Attorney's Office will not prosecute patients whose use and possession of medical marijuana are within these guidelines," the District Attorney's Office's Health and Safety Code prosecution guidelines state.

But the district attorney's policy does warn about potential consequences from other agencies.

"Persons using or considering the use of marijuana, its possession, transportation or recommendation must be aware that the policies of other counties may differ," the document stated. "More significantly, the federal government and other states criminalize marijuana and all activities associated with its possession, cultivation, use, transportation, distribution and sale."


Grower, landlord find common ground

Although they may have different opinions on the enforcement of marijuana laws, a local landlord and a local marijuana grower have at least one thing in common -- both think grow houses are a big problem in Arcata.

For the landlord just outside Arcata's city limits -- LaVina Collenberg -- the possibility of DEA agents raiding grow houses in Arcata might be a good thing.

She said she had never had any issues with marijuana personally until one day she realized she had been duped.

A house she thought she had rented to be a home for a young couple and their baby was not that at all, but was being used exclusively for growing a large amount of marijuana.

That grow operation caused a fire last September, and since the couple's marijuana 215 cards were taped to a wall in the home, local authorities could not pursue any charges against the renters -- leaving an unsuspecting Collenberg with a bill for $55,000 in damages that her house insurance covered.

But if federal agents had discovered the grow operation first, Collenberg said her former renters would not have gotten away with the damage they caused to her property.

"I don't think we can handle it ourselves; it's not being done," Collenberg said. "I'm not against anyone smoking marijuana, but when they do it for profit and hurt people, it's horrible. It's all about greed and money and they don't care who they hurt."

An Arcata marijuana grower -- who wished to remain anonymous for legal reasons -- agreed that grow houses are a problem, but not one that the DEA should stick its nose in.

"The DEA going around busting people for small marijuana grows is not different than the government busting people for making liquor in the 1920s," the grower said. "It's not working; it's making no productive change. It's not the gateway drug to the problems it is proposed to cause."

The grower, who is also a 215 card holder, said she was not worried about being targeted by a raid, since she grows a small number of plants in a 10-by-6-foot room in her home and sells excess plants to a medical marijuana dispensary for approximately $1,000 per month.

"There's nothing about my situation that would cause a person to wonder what's going on," she said of the grow inside her residence. "If I were in a position that the PG&E bill was astronomical, the windows were covered and the neighbors were irritated -- which I know to be the case to many in Arcata -- I think it would lead the DEA to your door."

Ultimately, the grower said she thought the local community could figure out its troubles with marijuana itself and that if marijuana were legal, there would be no need for the DEA to come for a visit in the first place.

"Maybe I'm old fashioned," Collenberg said about her stance on grow houses. "I just don't think it's right."


Burning down the houses

John McFarland, Arcata Fire Protection District chief, poses just one question with regard to the issue: If growing marijuana is so legitimate, why is it done so sneakily?

"Everyone knows if you want a 215 card which doctor you go to," McFarland said. "The issue of medical marijuana is controversial, but we're looking at the safety standpoint of it."

Residential fires in which marijuana grows were contributing factor or were present have been on the rise in the past two to three years, McFarland said.

"We are trying to build realistic statistics," he said. "It's easily half of our structural fires, but our intentions are to come up with realistic numbers instead of wild guesses."

McFarland says he doesn't have an issue with medical marijuana, but when his firefighters' safety is at risk due to the conditions of the home, he's not so easygoing.

In some cases, firefighters' efforts have been obstructed by "severe locks, and even concealed or secret doors," McFarland said. "We've had to take out a window, only to find that six inches behind the drapes is another wall," he said. "The alterations are done behind the scenes and not appropriately -- it's just flat luck that they don't burn the house down the first day."

In two home fires this year, McFarland said propane and butane canisters were present.

"If it was to detonate, it's going to level the structure and severely damage and harm the neighbors' homes," McFarland said. "And it has implications of a fatal outcome for the firefighters -- this is where the fire chief gets concerned."


An 'Eye' on growing marijuana

Like many Humboldt County residents who have watched the blogs, Arcata Eye Publisher and Editor Kevin Hoover said last week he was "waiting for the big bust-olla to happen."

Hoover, who runs Arcata's weekly newspaper, has felt the brunt of some residents' anger recently, as he has given considerable coverage to the pot issues over the past year -- even sending letters to homeowners of suspected illegal grow houses.

"This has put the fear of God into the existing paradigm here," he said.

Since Hoover started sending "Dear Growhouse Owner" letters in mid-May, he's received both praise and death threats. In the past two weeks, four local businesses pulled their advertisements from the paper.

But Hoover, who showed a New York Times reporter a suspected grow house and was interviewed by various national media outlets, said he's simply doing what he loves -- his job.

"I'm just asking questions," he said. "This has predictably been misconstrued and interpreted."

The letter informs the recipient that their house may be a grow house and that neighbors are concerned, Hoover said. "They give me an address, I look up the property owner and I send the property owner a letter," he said. "I simply report a fact -- your neighbors are worried about pot."

Hoover has received mixed reactions, but most homeowners have been thankful, he said. "Three-fourths of the people who own the houses have called me and said thanks," he said. "I've heard from three people who are very unhappy with me."

The national media attention has put him in the spotlight and angered some, but Hoover said he just did what he'd want his sources to do -- talk.

"When I call somebody in my job as a reporter, I'd like them to answer my questions," he said.

As far as pot smoking, Hoover could care less.

"We all just wish it was legalized," he said.

But when marijuana cultivation, under the guise of the 215 law, brings crime into neighborhoods, Hoover's had enough.

"I don't see how protecting this organized crime business protects medical marijuana," Hoover said. "It's corporate now; it's big business."


Politics of marijuana

Arcata City Councilmember Harmony Groves supported Proposition 215 when it appeared on the ballot in 1999 and said she doesn't think the federal government should regulate marijuana grows in Arcata.

But Groves said she recognizes that marijuana cultivation in Arcata is a problem and that she knows of residential neighborhoods where there are no houses available to rent because they are used to grow marijuana.

She said she doesn't think that's a good thing, but she doesn't want the federal government to roll into town and uproot people's lives either.

For her, the pot dispensaries and the grow houses are the responsibility of Arcata and Humboldt County, not the federal government.

"It will be unfortunate if the DEA comes into town," she said.

Arcata City Councilmember Paul Pitino, who said the city is making progress addressing the grow house issue, thinks the number of grow houses being circulated by officials and media is exaggerated.

"A sheet covers a window," he said, "and then you have a grow house."

Councilmember Michael Machi said he doesn't have a problem with 215 patients converting small sections of homes to grow medical marijuana, but he does take issue with houses that are used for growing and selling.

"It ruins the housing market," he said, and takes away housing for students.

Machi agreed the numbers of grow houses in the city may not be accurate, but said he doesn't want to downplay the severity of the situation.

"It's an issue that we can deal with through our zoning regulations," he said. "Even if it's only a few hundred of them -- which is a lot - -- it's going to take awhile to clean up that mess."

Machi said he wants people to come to Arcata for what the city has done for the Arcata Marsh, the community forest or the trail system.

"I don't want Arcata to be famous for supposedly being taken over for marijuana grows," he said.


PG&E not lighting up grow houses for feds

Among the speculations circulating ahead of the raids was that Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which supplies power to the homes suspected of growing marijuana, tipped off the police to which houses held the biggest grows.

A PG&E official said last week that short of a court order, the utility company would not go out of its way to provide information to anyone or to police.

PG&E spokeswoman Jana Morris said she was unaware of the Arcata grow house controversy that had attracted national media attention until she received an unusual flurry of Humboldt County media inquiries last week.

Morris said PG&E is not a law enforcement agency and it doesn't investigate a customer's unusual or increased electricity usage, and she was adamant that the company doesn't share its customer information with the public.

"We truly respect our customers' privacy," Morris said. "We take that very seriously."

While it wouldn't volunteer customer usage information to another person or police, Morris said, PG&E is required under state and federal laws to cooperate with law enforcement agencies if the utility company is subpoenaed or a search warrant is served.

Morris said she hadn't heard anything about any such a subpoena related to Arcata's grow houses, but acknowledged that information wouldn't necessarily be known or available for release.

But with the increased focus by the media, and the considerable misinformation propagating on area Internet blogs, Morris said there are concerns at PG&E over the safety of its workers who live in the community and are responsible for walking door to door to read residences' meters.

"Our first concern is our employees," Morris said.

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Pubdate: Wed, 25 Jun 2008
Source: Eureka Reporter, The (CA)
Copyright: 2008 The Eureka Reporter
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)
Bookmark: (Drug Raids)

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