Where are they now?
Almost 15 months after raids on medical-marijuana collectives, few have been charged and more have suffered
More than a year ago, law-enforcement officers raided eight medical-marijuana collectives in Butte County, and the lives of those targeted haven’t been the same since. One man nearly lost his trucking business. Another had trouble making his house payment. Several up and left Butte County in the dust (except for occasional appearances in court to try to reclaim seized property).
In the meantime, prosecutors have filed criminal charges in just one case. For everyone else caught up in the raids, it feels like being judged and punished before being brought to the courtroom.
Richard Tognoli is a prime example. As owner of Tognoli Trucking and Grading, he’d done pretty well for himself. Profits from when the economy was healthy were keeping business rolling during recent hard times. He had four trucks and several employees. Then law enforcement raided his collective—Scripts Only Service (SOS)—and, among other things, seized all his bank accounts, including those related to his trucking company and his personal finances.
As of September 2010, Tognoli estimated he’d lost more than $100,000 because of the bank seizures. Now, a year later, he runs just one truck because he wasn’t able to afford fuel and payroll for the other three.
“It’s like I’m back to being a one-truck owner-operator,” he said recently by phone. “It really takes a lot to build a company. It took me years to get where I was. They crippled us.”
As for SOS, Tognoli shut the doors about three months ago.
“What they did to the cannabis club, wiping out the garden and hitting us with zoning-violation fines, there’s no way a small organization working to try to help the disabled community in Butte County is going to be able to stick around,” he said. “We were so completely upside down it wasn’t even funny. We couldn’t pay the phone bill, let alone electric bills and the rest.”
Tognoli has been working all this time, having gone to court on countless occasions to get the physical property seized in the raid returned to him—“We got enough paperwork back so we could file taxes,” he said—and the money has been the toughest nut to crack. A year after the raid and seizure of his bank accounts, Tognoli and his lawyer, Robert MacKenzie, are still fighting to get it all back.
“The judge returned the money but overstepped his authority, in my opinion, by saying that my lawyer had to keep it in his trust account just in case there’s a conviction later on,” Tognoli said. So, the $10,000-plus that could be used to keep his trucking business thriving is instead sitting in a bank account “just in case.”
MacKenzie represents several clients who are trying to get their assets returned to them from the raids—including Tognoli and Paul Fink, who ran Northern California Herbal Collective. Like Tognoli, Fink also runs his own business, an adult bookstore called PlayTime4You. And, also like Tognoli, Fink’s bank accounts were seized (in most other cases bank accounts were frozen but not seized). He also was told he’d get his money back, but it would have to be held in trust by his attorney.
Fink views his decision to open a medical-marijuana collective in Butte County as one of the worst he’s ever made.
“I’ve struggled, big time,” he said during a recent interview in his north Chico home.
The raid and seizure of his bank accounts marked the first in a string of negative incidents for Fink, a 30-something Hispanic man. Shortly afterward, one of his partners at the collective, Trevor McBride, died from spinal meningitis. Not long after that, a fire ravaged PlayTime4You’s Esplanade location. As if that wasn’t enough, a few months ago his other partner, William Burney, was charged with murder in the 2008 killing of a Paradise man.
But, to date, despite being raided not once but three times, Fink still has not been charged with a crime. In the meantime, he believes his good name has been caked with mud. When his house was raided last June, officers spoke about Fink to his neighbors as if he was a convicted drug dealer.
“I’ve busted my ass, working two jobs most of my life. It’s not like I’m living the life—I’m scraping by just like everyone else,” he said, adding that he had trouble making his house payment after his accounts were seized. “Right now, I’m trying to survive. I’ve spent so much money on attorneys. I’m paying to prove my innocence when I am innocent.”
MacKenzie agreed. Despite having requested that assets and property be returned to his clients—he’s currently working seven cases related to last year’s raids—he doubts all of it will be returned until the three-year statute of limitations has expired. And that’s even if charges are never filed against his clients.
“The game that’s played here [on the part of the prosecutors] is, ‘How much are you going to pay to get these assets back?’” he said. “Just about anybody would say that drug dealers shouldn’t be able to profit from their illicit gains. Unfortunately that’s created grossly unfair and draconian exceptions to our constitutional rights [of due process].”
This past June, almost a year to the day after the raids, Butte County Deputy District Attorney Helen Harberts filed charges against three individuals involved with one collective, Mountainside Patients Collective. A press release from the DA’s Office promised more charges against people involved with other collectives were forthcoming, but none has yet been filed.
Brothers Jason and Michael Anderson face six charges each, and Kaitlyn Sanchez faces four, related to the cultivation, possession and sale of marijuana. A preliminary hearing has been set for Monday (Sept. 26), the same day Jason Anderson was hoping to have surgery to remove cancer from his ribs and spine.
“A large part of recovering from cancer is remaining positive,” Jason Anderson wrote in an email. He was feeling too ill after an August surgery that removed one rib to meet with a reporter in person. “I would be lying if I told you that the legal charges against me were not weighing heavily on me and that the stress of it all was not interfering with my ability to heal.”
When doctors found on an X-ray what appeared to be a tumor in his chest cavity, Anderson, who was already a medical-marijuana patient and grew his own plants, decided the timing was right to start a collective. Within two months of opening, however, his health began to decline rapidly. When June came along, “We lost everything in the raids and did not re-open,” Anderson explained. None of their property or assets have been returned.
Others involved in last year’s raids continue to fight—Robert Galia, who runs North Valley Holistic Health, is the only one whose doors have remained open despite the odds—and others have thrown in the towel. Doctor’s Orders, which won last year’s Best of Chico category for Best Medical Marijuana Dispensary, shut down and left Butte County altogether. So did some of the others.
The reality is, whether they’re fighting the seizure of their property in civil court or not, they’re all sitting around waiting, wondering if they’ll be charged with criminal crimes, like those involved with Mountainside Patients Collective.
“They’ll hit rather quickly after the first preliminary hearing, after I see how the court’s going to rule,” Harberts said of future charges related to the raids.
So, this holiday season could be very bleak indeed. Or it could yield nothing, as previous threats have been unfruitful.
“I just want all this behind me,” said Fink. “I want to be able to move on with my life.”
Anderson echoed his thoughts.
“My first hope is to live. That is the reality I currently face,” he wrote. “Beyond that I hope to not go to prison for providing cannabis medicines to qualified patients. … I hope to continue to fight for patient rights until we see the day when the senseless prohibition of this plant is a distant memory and people do not have to go through the pain and suffering I am [going through] due to insane laws and archaic policy.”