- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Just days before Christmas, roughly 50 agents with the San Luis Obispo County Narcotics Task Force (NTF) raided eight residences throughout SLO and Los Angeles counties after an investigation into mobile medical marijuana dispensaries.
Twelve people—ranging in age from 21 to 60—were arrested under a heap of charges, from possession of marijuana for sale to child endangerment.
Between Dec. 27 and 29, agents executed search warrants at homes in Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero, Pismo Beach, and Tarzana in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
The raids followed a two-month investigation into mobile dispensaries that law enforcement agents suspected of violating guidelines within California’s Marijuana Compassionate Use Act and Medical Marijuana Program. In total, seven delivery services were targeted.
The NTF is comprised of representatives from the SLO County Sheriff’s Department, city police agencies, and the California Highway Patrol. According to SLO County NTF Commander Rodney John, every person apprehended in the raids was either an owner or operator of a mobile dispensary, but he wouldn’t give specifics about how they broke the law.
“They weren’t following any of the guidelines,” John said. “It’s very clear of what they can and cannot do. And they’re not following any of it.”
Those arrested who were contacted by New Times, however, contend they were very careful to follow the law, and suspected two individuals who contacted them for their services within the past months were undercover police.
Christopher Austin of Paso Robles said agents raided his home while his family was visiting for Christmas. A family member who Austin said had nothing to do with his business was also arrested.
“They raided my house with machine guns, helicopters—the whole thing,” Austin said. “It was like they were raiding someone who committed murders.”
Austin said agents handcuffed everyone in the house except his two children, ages 2 and 4; forced his mother-in-law to the ground, causing a four-inch contusion to her leg; and notified Child Welfare Services, who immediately placed his children in the care of his father-in-law.
In the eight raids, a total of six children were taken from their immediate families and placed in protective custody. As of this printing, Austin’s wife remains in jail on suspicion of child endangerment, though no charges had been filed as of Jan. 4.
“Marijuana is very dangerous and there have been a number of cases with children overdosing on marijuana,” John said.
Austin’s bail was initially set at $100,000. At his Dec. 30 arraignment, however, Superior Court Judge Jaqueline Duffy released him on his own recognizance. Austin said Duffy was the same judge who signed his search warrant.
“These are people that are squeaky, squeaky clean, with families,” said David Fisher, who is representing others who were arrested. “Some have been in the county for decades. I don’t think [NTF knows] what the law is, and they’re looking it up as they go. … I mean, this is crazy.”
Evidence seized during the combined raids included 57 pounds of marijuana, 162 immature plants, 146 grams of hash, 718 grams of hash oil, four grams of cocaine, seven firearms, and $492,931 in U.S. currency.
John said the cocaine seized was from the residence in Tarzana, the currency was a combination of cash and seized bank accounts, and the firearms—while registered—were confiscated because of their proximity to “narcotics.”
“Let me make it very clear: We’re not out to squelch the medical marijuana program,” John said. “But we’re making sure that they are complying, because those who are in violation are ruining it for the rest who really need it.”
John told New Times the operation was a success and that he expects the “concrete proof” collected will lead every person arrested in the operation to be prosecuted without reductions
The District Attorney’s Office could not be reached for this article.
In response to the arrests, the medical marijuana advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access, is scheduled to stage a rally on the steps of the county courthouse at 8 a.m. on Jan. 11. ∆