After the raid

Medical-marijuana activists try to figure out what’s next

No Johnny-come-lately: 80-year old Imogene Cole (right) revs up at last week’s rally.

No Johnny-come-lately: 80-year old Imogene Cole (right) revs up at last week’s rally.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Imogene Cole is getting agitated. Tired and sick, she says she dragged herself to this September 8 rally at the federal building at Sixth and I streets because she’s “a hard-core activist.”

Cole has joined others to protest recent raids on a Sacramento-area medical-marijuana dispensary by federal drug-enforcement agents. Her impatience gets the better of her when reporters begin questioning care provider and business owner Richard Marino—whose business is the subject of the raids—about possible criminal arrest and prosecution.

The 80-year-old takes her motorized scooter out of park and begins circling the crowd while shouting, “Not five minutes in jail! Not five minutes!” She continues her rant for a few turns around the small plaza before pulling back to her original spot in the shade and growing quiet again.

“There’s no messing around with me,” she said, earlier. “I’m no Johnny-come-lately to this [movement]. … I’ve been smoking marijuana since I was 15, and it’s saved my life, I can tell you that.”

Although few can compete with Cole’s unusual track record, the sentiment of “marijuana as medicine” is shared by a majority of the 50 or so people gathered in the hot noonday sun, bonded by their outrage over the continued clash between state law—which, since 1996, has allowed Californians to legally possess, grow and dispense medical marijuana with a doctor’s prescription—and federal law, which continues to classify the herb as a Schedule I drug, illegal for any use.

Although 10 states, including California, currently have medical-marijuana laws on the books, California increasingly has become a lightning rod for federal authorities looking to thwart their implementation, say many in both the legal and advocacy communities.

“They’ve made a practice of targeting high-profile dispensaries because, as they say, there is no such thing as medical marijuana,” says William Dolphin of Americans for Safe Access, one of the largest medical-marijuana advocacy organizations in the country.

“With Mr. Marino, the real significance is that he’s a legally licensed business owner,” Dolphin continues. “Clearly, the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] picked someone who’s doing it right and following the letter of the law.”

That’s why Marino, who opened the Capitol Compassionate Care dispensary in Roseville in January, was shocked when DEA agents served federal search warrants on both his business and Newcastle farm on September 3, seizing 200 plants, about $80,000 and 12-15 pounds of medical marijuana from the store.

“I’ve gone above and beyond to do everything state law required,” says Marino. “The city imposed additional requirements, and I met those as well. We run a safe, quiet business where people come to get help. Now, 3,000 patients have nowhere to go—except to the street. And 14 people are now unemployed. Who does this help?”

Although it’s not mandated under state law, the city of Roseville required fingerprints and background checks through the state Department of Justice, which Marino complied with. His business license is in good standing, city officials confirmed.

Marino sits atop the tailgate of his faded 1999 Dodge pickup, shaking his head in quiet disbelief. It’s the afternoon after the rally, September 9, and his son has just informed him that the feds have seized his business’s bank account. Additionally, shortly following the rally, Marino was informed that the U.S. attorney’s office had filed a civil complaint in federal court, seeking to seize both his home and business.

Wearing Levi’s, a yellow Hawaiian-style shirt and flip-flops, Marino describes the activity surrounding him in the preceding days as surreal.

“Now, they’re saying we did something wrong because we made money.

“My truck’s got 172,000 miles on it; I’m not driving a BMW or Lexus,” Marino says. “In the eight months since we opened, I haven’t gone out and bought a bunch of extravagant stuff. Whatever money we made, we basically put back into the business to make it safer and nicer for the people that worked there and the patients.”

Richard Marino now fears that the feds are seeking to seize his home as well as his business.

Marino also wonders what part of “business” the federal government fails to understand.

“Of course we made money,” he adds, declining to talk profit margin. “I came out of retirement to do something productive, to make a living and to help people. I’m not supposed to make a living?”

Prior to opening his store, Marino, 50, was a retired union engineer, injured after 20 years on the job, suffering with severe back and neck pain. He says he began using marijuana medicinally after his surgeries.

Keeping the store open and serving 3,000 patients often took upwards of $50,000 a day to purchase the medicine Marino couldn’t grow himself, he says.

Who will stick up for Marino remains to be seen, however. Asset-forfeiture law is particularly complex, and legal help is expensive.

“I’m at a loss of where to go for help. I have some money—about $100,000—but that’s supposed to go for paying employees, business expenses, and frankly, I don’t want to end up with nothing if this goes badly,” he says.

Dale Gieringer, executive director of California’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says Marino’s case will be watched closely.

“With this, the government has used a new weapon we haven’t seen before—asset forfeiture—and we’re highly concerned about it,” says Gieringer. “It’s interesting to note that since 9/11, we’ve had far more federal arrests for medical marijuana than for terrorism in California, so you can see where people’s priorities are here. We definitely want to squash this.”

Beyond legal representation, Marino wonders where his government leaders are in this fight.

“This is California law, right?” Marino asks rhetorically, of the law enacted by Proposition 215. “So, where is the governor? Where is the attorney general? Why aren’t they defending me, defending the rights of the people who voted for this and telling the feds to back off?

“Arnold called the Legislature ‘girlie men’ for failing to act, didn’t he? Well, what about him and [Attorney General] Bill Lockyer?” he adds, only half-jesting.

While Lockyer was attending a conference in Yosemite at press time and was unavailable for comment, press secretary Hallye Jordan said, “In general, he’s against the feds heavy-footing in jurisdictions where the locals have approved the distribution of medical marijuana through a local dispensary.

“His general concern is: Why waste these precious resources when there are criminal drug operations to go after?”

Lockyer previously intervened on behalf of medical-marijuana activist Ed Rosenthal and also wrote to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft after the raid of a Santa Cruz provider. “A medicinal marijuana provider such as the Santa Cruz collective represents little danger to the public and is certainly not a concern which would warrant diverting scarce federal resources away from the fight against domestic methamphetamine production, heroin distribution or international terrorism, to cite just a few far more worthy priorities,” Lockyer wrote in his September 6, 2002, letter to Ashcroft. Jordan could not say whether Marino’s case would elicit similar support from her boss at this time.

Two recent rulings by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals—which held that federal authorities don’t have the power to go after medical-marijuana operations confined within the state—may hold hope for Marino. One of those cases, Raich v. Ashcroft—expected to be visited by the U.S. Supreme Court this winter—would have far-reaching implications, should the high court uphold the lower court’s ruling, Dolphin says.

“If the federal government does not have the right to prosecute medical-marijuana patients and caregivers, then it would follow that they don’t have the right to seize their property,” Dolphin notes. “Already, defendants brought to federal court are being released, temporarily, pending the outcome in the Supreme Court. We’re all waiting.”