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State Agents Raid Cannabis Buyers' Club in San Francisco


September 1996

On August 4, agents of the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement raided the Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco, the largest of some 30 sub-rosa medicinal marijuana suppliers in the country. One day later, the CBC was ordered closed by Superior Court Judge William Cahill (Michael McCabe, "State Raids Marijuana Buyers' Club," San Francisco Chronicle, August 5, 1996, p. A1; Tim Golden, "Agents Crack Down on Marijuana Buying Club," New York Times, August 5, 1996, p. A8).

The raid, authorized by Attorney General Dan Lungren, came after a supposed two-year investigation involving undercover agents who bought marijuana at the club. Nearly 100 agents took part in the raid on the Cannabis Buyers' Club (CBC) at 1444 Market Street in the city's Castro District and five other locations allegedly connected to the club. Authorized by a search warrant, agents broke down the CBC's front door and seized 150 pounds of marijuana, 11,000 clients' records, drug paraphernalia and "tens of thousands of dollars in cash," according to a bureau spokesman.

The primary purpose of the raid was to gather evidence showing that the CBC was distributing marijuana beyond that used for medicinal purposes, said Steve Telliano, a spokesman for the bureau. "We are not targeting for prosecution anyone who was a customer of that club, " said Joe Doane, chief of the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. "We are targeting those people who we believe are running a marijuana distribution ring in the Bay Area." Although no one was arrested during the raid, agents expect to file charges against some club organizers once they have sifted through the evidence.

The bureau says the investigation found that the CBC frequently sold drugs to minors, sold excessive amounts of marijuana, and sold to those with no medical need. During the undercover investigation, Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement agent James Kerrigan allegedly joined the club without valid documentation of an ailment; received a membership card and two "guest passes"; and made six separate purchases, all within a week. The police say that on July 6, Kerrigan, wearing a wire, bought a pound of marijuana for $900 from Denis Peron, founder of the CBC, according to an affidavit. Telliano said agents saw children "in a day care-like situation," breathing secondhand marijuana smoke. Telliano also said that agents made video tapes of marijuana sales to teenagers (George Cothran and Chuck Finnie, "Blowing Smoke," San Francisco Weekly, August 14-20, 1996 p. 4).

Peron qualified and refuted the agents' claims. He said the 1-pound sale to Kerrigan was unusual because Kerrigan gained his sympathy by saying that he was HIV positive, had just lost his lover, and wanted the marijuana to start a cannabis club in the Russian River region of Sonoma County, CA. Peron said the almost $250,000 a week that the CBC grossed was put back into club activities, like "pot" giveaways to indigent people and a 12-step program to help addicts kick hard drugs and alcohol. He also said that children were restricted to the nonsmoking first floor of the club.

Club organizers deny that they deal drugs, but admit mistakes have been made. "When you're dealing with something that is a social revolution, there is no way to do it correctly the first time around. Of course, there will be mistakes," said club administrator Gary A. Johnson. "I have to accept responsibility. The club was run a little sloppy," said Dennis Peron on August 12. "I let my heart run the club instead of my head." He added later, "I apologize to the people of San Francisco. I betrayed their trust."

Some medicinal marijuana supporters blame Peron for not sticking to his own rules and say that the real victims are the people suffering from diseases who need the drug for their well-being. District Attorney Terence Hallinan, a supporter of medical marijuana, said he met with CBC administrators in June and warned them "to clean up their act" or he would have to prosecute.

Dennis Peron founded the CBC in 1991 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to provide marijuana to people with AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and other diseases. The club, which says it serves 12,000 customers, openly advertises itself as a nonprofit organization. Potential members are supposed to have a legitimate letter from a physician saying that they can benefit from the use of marijuana.

Peron also helped to submit 763,000 signatures to qualify a medical marijuana initiative (Proposition 215) for the November 5 ballot in California. Agents also seized some Proposition 215 campaign material from the club. Telliano said, "We've taken precautions that those materials will not be disturbed." For more information about Proposition 215, see article in this issue of NewsBriefs.

Medical marijuana supporters accuse Attorney General Lungren, a Republican politician with well-known ambitions for higher office and a leading opponent of Proposition 215, of politicizing the issue, noting that the raid took place one day before the Republican national convention in San Diego. "This is a compassionate use issue and Dan Lungren is making a political point on top of people who are hurting and sick," said Gilbert Baker, a club volunteer. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown (D) said he wished Lungren "would refrain from political grandstanding at the expense of the health and welfare of the people of San Francisco." Fourteen state legislators in Sacramento signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno saying Lungren "may have used the powers of his office for purely political reasons." CBC supporters say that Lungren's raid might backfire politically and increase voter support of Proposition 215.

City officials in San Francisco have tolerated the CBC. The city's District Attorney and local U.S. Attorney were unwilling to prosecute the case. San Francisco police recruited DEA officials to the case, who then turned it over to the state attorney general. "It's a highly unusual case where the District Attorney and the Federal Government won't prosecute, and law enforcement has shopped the case around to see who will," said David J. Millstein, the city's chief assistant District Attorney.

Local officials reacted swiftly to the raid. Tom Ammiano, who leads the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, called the raid a "petty, vindictive, pseudo war on drugs." On August 6, Mayor Brown said, "I am dismayed by the Gestapo tactics displayed by Attorney General Dan Lungren." On the same day, Sheriff Michael Hennessey rejected a request by Deputy Attorney General Lawrence A. Mercer to enforce Judge Cahill's court order barring the sale of marijuana at the CBC. In a letter to Mercer and Lungren, Hennessey said that he "does not wish to spend precious law enforcement dollars busting people engaged in distributing marijuana for medicinal purposes. He also asked Lungren "not to waste the time of local agencies. Telliano said his office will not push Hennessey to enforce the order because it appears the CBC is abiding by it voluntarily (Glen Martin, "State Pot Ordered Rejected," San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 1996, p. A1)."

San Francisco Board of Supervisors
Committee Defeats Emergency Resolution

On August 15, San Francisco Board of Supervisors, on the advice of the city's district attorney and director of health, killed a resolution by Supervisor Tom Ammiano that would allow the distribution of medical marijuana. The resolution would have declared a public health emergency to provide a legal basis for reviving the CBC. Department of Health chief Sandra Hernandez declared her support for proposition 215, but said there was "no legal grounds" for declaring a state of emergency. District Attorney Terence Hallinan said there must be a serious public hazard posing an immediate threat in order to declare an emergency. The CBC closure did not meet those qualifications, he said (Dale Gieringer, fax to NewsBriefs, August 16, 1996; Clarence Johnson, "No Marijuana 'Emergency' For S.F.'s Sick," San Francisco Chronicle, August 15, 1996, p. A21).

However, the Board of Supervisors declared their support for medical marijuana; denounced Attorney General Dan Lungren for ordering the raid; demanded an accounting from Police Chief Fred Lau on the involvement of San Francisco Police; and announced an investigation by the city attorney on whether the First Amendment was violated when state agents seized Proposition 215 records from the CBC. Supervisor Tom Ammiano asked the board to reassert its support for city resolution 741-92, which calls on law enforcement to make medical marijuana its lowest priority. Hallinan and San Francisco Deputy Police Chief John Willett said they intended to abide by the resolution.

Mayor Brown, who initially supported the emergency resolution for cannabis, reversed his support for the resolution on August 14 at a press conference. He said that such an action could jeopardize San Francisco's sterile needle exchange program, which operates under a similar resolution. "If we bundle the medical emergency around cannabis and there is a (successful legal challenge) on that, it will spill over and adversely affect the effective needle exchange program," said Brown. Brown said he was working with the state attorney general's office to let an alternate organization distribute marijuana to the sick. "If they say that it can't be done with the Cannabis Club (and) it has to be done with some other organization that's free of any taint, then we'll do that," said Brown (Diana Walsh, "'Emergency' cannabis sale plan fades," San Francisco Examiner, August 15, 1996 p. A3).

Head of San Francisco Police Narcotics Unit
Reassigned in CBC Controversy

Captain Greg Corrales, head of the San Francisco police narcotics unit, was notified on August 9 of his transfer from the Hall of Justice headquarters to the Ingleside Station. Corrales' narcotics unit shopped the CBC evidence to the DEA, which led to the August 4 raid by state officials. Police Chief Fred Lau said on August 8 that Corrales' transfer was a "regular move" and not "directly related to what is going on this week." Some police say Corrales is being made a political scapegoat. Deputy Chief John Willett admits, "It was my recommendation to the chief that Captain Corrales be transferred from narcotics because he is becoming the center and focus -- both from the media and from outside sources -- of this investigation, and that should not happen." However, Willett insists that Corrales' transfer is not a disciplinary action (Phil Matier and Andrew Ross, "S.F.'s Top Drug Cop to Be Moved," San Francisco Chronicle, August 9, 1996, p. A1).

Cannabis Buyers' Club Members Find
Other Sources for Medicinal Marijuana

Following the closure of the Cannabis Buyers' Club (CBC) on August 5, CBC members have looked to similar clubs in Oakland and Santa Cruz for alternate sources of medicinal marijuana. "We've been flooded since the San Francisco bust," said Jeff Jones, co-director of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Club, which is not directly affiliated with the CBC in San Francisco. The other co-director of the Oakland club, Liana Held, said new memberships have gone from about five to twenty a day. Fred Seike, manager of the Cannabis Buyers Club in Santa Cruz, said on August 8, "We got dozens of calls from folks from San Francisco, and we're doing the best we can to help out." The Santa Cruz club maintains a co-membership policy with the San Francisco club (Glen Martin, Charles Burress and Maria Alicia Gaura, "Marijuana Clubs Get New Business," San Francisco Chronicle, August 9, 1996, p. A1; William Carlson, "Cannabis Club Members Risk the Streets," San Francisco Chronicle, August 10, 1996, p. A1).