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California Grapples with Polices on Marjuana

October 15, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent: This summer, law enforcement agents converged in trucks and helicopters to prepare for a series of assaults.

CMDR. NEIL CUTHBERT, Campaign Against Marijuana Planting: I know we’ve got four gardens today, or we have five. One of them is a little far, so we’re going to try to knock out four.

JEFFREY KAYE: Their targets were marijuana gardens, scattered in California’s Sequoia National Forest, roughly two hours north of Los Angeles. From the air, agents scoured mountainsides searching for the state’s number-one cash crop.

LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENT: Oh, yeah, yeah, all under there.

JEFFREY KAYE: To avoid detection, marijuana growers have turned increasingly to remote areas of national forests and state parks. Once they found the pot plants, drug police from federal, state and local agencies hoisted up and swooped in. They are part of CAMP, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, a 24-year-old program run by the state of California and funded mostly by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA.

Neil Cuthbert is a commander with CAMP.

CMDR. NEIL CUTHBERT: We expect we’re going to break last year’s record probably within another week, week and a half.

JEFFREY KAYE: What was last year’s record?

CMDR. NEIL CUTHBERT: 1.6 million.

JEFFREY KAYE: 1.6 million plants?

CMDR. NEIL CUTHBERT: Yes.

JEFFREY KAYE: By mid-September, the count was more than 2.2 million. Even though every year there’s more marijuana grown and more found, Cuthbert thinks the raids are effective.

CMDR. NEIL CUTHBERT: We have a major impact on these organizations, $58 million eradicated today. That is a major, major impact, especially when they lost all their money, and they already sunk a bunch of money into it.

Few arrests of workers

JEFFREY KAYE: The money goes for irrigation systems, pesticides, and pay for the seasonal workers who tend the farms. Agents have made only a few arrests of workers. They have also engaged in shootouts with men guarding the marijuana crops.

Usually, the reconnaissance helicopters scare off workers. In this case, all that was left of them was the crop and the encampment left behind.

LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENT: A lot of them are undocumented illegal immigrants.

JEFFREY KAYE: Are they paid in cash, or are they paid with the crop?

LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENT: Well, no, for the most part, when we catch these guys and debrief them, they say that they get paid in cash. If they get a lot of pounds, then they get paid by the pound. Others say they get paid by the day, some say from $100 to $200 a day.

JEFFREY KAYE: But there's an ironic aspect to the eradication program. Even as agents destroy clandestine pot farms in the mountains, in many California communities, stores sell marijuana for medical purposes with the full knowledge of local law enforcement.

California is one of 13 states with medical marijuana laws. The California statute was passed by voters in 1996 as the Compassionate Use Act.

TOMMY SMALLS, Marijuana Dispensary Employee: If they're going to be working and doing their daily duties, I offer them "Sativa." But if they're in pain, like a herniated disk, dislocated back, spine, I recommend "Indigo." Helps them sleep a lot better.

JEFFREY KAYE: The California law allows a person with a written recommendation from a physician to go to any of hundreds of storefront dispensaries to purchase pot.

CUSTOMER: I'll take an eighth of this...

JEFFREY KAYE: But federal drug laws don't recognize any medical use for marijuana, which falls in the same drug category as heroin. Mary McElderry, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's Los Angeles office, says pot dispensaries are just illegal drug dealers.

MARY MCELDERRY, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration: There's no distinction between the marijuana that is grown in the field and cultivated and distributed on the streets as the marijuana that's sold in the dispensaries. Marijuana is illegal under federal law, and consequently there's no regulation for obtaining it.

State law cannot stop DEA

JEFFREY KAYE: McElderry says state law cannot prevent the DEA from enforcing federal drug restrictions. In raids on storefronts, the DEA has seized marijuana and cash.

The raids are generally backed up by local law enforcement. That's a practice that causes conflicts in communities which have either adopted hands-off policies or which have their local police license dispensaries. Jim McGowen used to run a marijuana dispensary in the Kern County city of Bakersfield.

JIM MCGOWEN, Former Dispensary Owner: Yeah, this license here was issued by the Kern County Sheriff's Department for a period of one year. This one was issued on December the 14th, 2006.

JEFFREY KAYE: So the same sheriff, Donny Youngblood, whose deputies destroy marijuana in the mountains was issuing licenses to pot dispensaries. That contradiction disturbed him.

SHERIFF DONNY YOUNGBLOOD, Kern County, California: It seemed a lot ambiguous to me to say, "Here's this certificate, and you're going to give me money, then this is a license to go have your marijuana dispensary, and I'm going to take your money, and then, a short time later, I'm going to come back in with the DEA and I'm going to send you off to federal prison." Well, that just didn't make sense to me.

JEFFREY KAYE: So he refused to issue any more licenses.

SHERIFF DONNY YOUNGBLOOD: In fact, I'm going to work the DEA to eradicate the ones that we have, because there's such a contradiction in what we're trying to accomplish here.

JIM MCGOWEN: These were the storage containers that we stored the cannabis in.

JEFFREY KAYE: Youngblood's decision put McGowen out of business. McGowen says his dispensary served 2,000 patients until the sheriff and DEA came with an ultimatum and an offer.

JIM MCGOWEN: And they told me that, if I closed the doors and didn't open back up, they would forget about me. And I said, "That's great. What if I don't?" And they said, "If you don't, we're going to arrest you, prosecute you, and do our best to give you 20 years in prison." I said it's not much of a choice.

GROUP OF PROTESTORS: DEA, go away!

Hoping for state law protection

JEFFREY KAYE: Activist Don Duncan made a similar choice. He shut down his dispensary in Hollywood after the DEA broke down the door, cleaned out his supplies, and froze the store's assets.

DON DUNCAN, Americans for Safe Access: DEA, go away!

JEFFREY KAYE: But defiantly he still runs dispensaries at two other locations, hoping that the state law will at some point offer protection.

DON DUNCAN: Right now, we have a situation in California and in Los Angeles where medical cannabis is legal. Collectives like this one are legal and tolerated. And yet, under federal law, all of that conduct is illegal. And it's very, very important that we harmonize the federal laws with the laws in the states that allow for medical marijuana so patients and providers and facilities like this can be safe.

JEFFREY KAYE: Dennis Zine is trying to make sure that happens.

COUNCILMAN DENNIS ZINE, Los Angeles: We believe there's a role for the DEA, and it's not for the DEA to go out and take down medicinal marijuana facilities.

JEFFREY KAYE: Zine is an L.A. city councilman and a Republican who spent 39 years on the Los Angeles police force.

COUNCILMAN DENNIS ZINE: I've got compassion as a police officer, compassion for human beings, compassion for people. People suffer from cancer. People suffer from AIDS, diseases, illnesses that are going to kill them. Why would we cause them to have more anguish and more pain?

And if someone's in the hospital, they'll give them morphine. There's a lot of drugs that are legalized by the government, and they sanction those. So we tell DEA, "Back off." I've sent a letter to the DEA administrator, "Leave us alone. We're going to regulate. We're going to control. We don't need you coming in and taking control of something that we want to handle on a local level."

Questions of financial gain

JEFFREY KAYE: The DEA argues that, for the dispensary owners, it's not about compassion; it's about money. They point to a recent indictment of men who operated dispensaries around California, one out of this Hollywood house.

MARY MCELDERRY: There were homes purchased. There were high-dollar cars purchased. There was land overseas purchased. These people were reaping great financial rewards from the distribution of marijuana from these dispensaries. They had seven locations and $95 million of sales in the sale of marijuana.

JEFFREY KAYE: Los Angeles lawyer Eric Shevin says there's lots of money around because it's a cash business. Although he represents dispensaries and people charged with violating marijuana laws, he thinks anyone running a dispensary is asking for trouble.

ERIC SHEVIN, Lawyer: You've got to be crazy to open a dispensary when you know that you're going to be in strict violation of federal law, where the penalties involve mandatory minimum prison sentences, multiple millions of dollars in fines, and you're singling yourself out by standing on the street corner, waving a red flag, saying, "Here I am violating federal law, come get me."

JEFFREY KAYE: At the same time, he says the marijuana eradication program is a doomed effort.

ERIC SHEVIN: Basic economics would tell you that, if demand goes up and supply goes down, price goes up. So since price is not going up, I think we know what's happening. We know demand's going up, so I guess supply must really be going up.

LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENT: ... 14,594 for the day...

JEFFREY KAYE: Drug agents say they are reassured by breaking their own record seizures year after year, even though they acknowledge they are destroying only a fraction of the crops.