What's up with MAVMIT, the Department of Fish and Wildlife's mysterious anti-marijuana task force?
Our writer encounters MAVMIT, the Department of Fish and Wildlife's mysterious anti-marijuana task force
The next time you’re running errands around town, beware: You might wind up in the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s marijuana dragnet.
I know, that sounds ridiculous. But, seriously, watch out.
Not long ago, I had to return something to Amazon. Not drugs. It was an iPod I had bought for my son. The wrong one, so I drove to the UPS Store on Freeport Boulevard to ship it back. There were folks ahead of me in line, it was lunchtime, I was hungry and I didn’t want to wait.
So, I went to the UPS Store on S Street in Midtown. No line, the lady at the counter was supernice and helpful. Alas, the ramen place next door had a wait, so I decided to look for a quieter lunch spot.
That’s when I noticed the large man in the S.F. Giants cap giving me the stink eye. I didn’t think too much about it. Midtown is mostly cool, but there is the occasional weirdo.
As I approached my car, however, the big dude called out. “Sir, excuse me. Can I talk to you?”
Now I saw the big dude had something hanging from a lanyard around his neck. As he got closer I could see it said “Department of Fish and Game.”
OK, what is this shit? I thought. Was this guy some kind of cop? Or scammer? What’s Fish and Game doing in Midtown? And, isn’t it called Department of Fish and Wildlife?
The big dude started talking about how he was part of a “marijuana task force,” he’d watched me leave the UPS store on Freeport. He said my car had a brake light out, and so he’d decided to follow me. And, now, he wanted to know why I was going from one UPS store to another. And he wanted to see my license and registration.
“Wait, what? You followed me?” I had no idea what he was talking about, but red flags were flying.
(For the record: I’m not a drug dealer. I don’t even smoke pot anymore, it makes me nervous.)
The big dude was making me nervous, too. His story didn’t seem kosher. I wasn’t going to open my wallet or my car door for him. I made to leave.
“You’re not leaving,” he said, moving closer. “You need to understand that you are being detained.”
“For a brake light? Who are you?” I asked. “Where is your ticket book? Where is your car, even?”
The big dude pulled out an ID. It said his name was John Laughlin, and it said Fish and Game. Was it real? I guessed maybe. How are you supposed to tell?
He said his ticket book was in his car around the corner, that we could walk over there. Uh-huh. “Tell you what,” I said. “You go get your ticket book. I’m going to call the police and we can sort it out with them.”
“And I’m going to warn you that you are interfering with my investigation,” the big dude countered. “And you may be placed under arrest.”
We stood there looking at each other for a while. Me thinking, What the hell? Him telling me he really was a real cop. Then, he called someone on his iPhone. I opened the voice memo app on mine and let him know I was recording. Shortly thereafter, some Sacramento County Probation Department guys rolled up in a marked car.
Laughlin told the probation guys about the UPS stores, the brake light and that I was nervous because I didn’t know who he was. All true. He told them, “I advised him about 148.”
Not true. I didn’t know what “148” meant until I looked it up and learned that’s the penal code for resisting arrest.
The probation guys told me Laughlin really was law enforcement. So, I showed him my license and registration. He gave me a little talk about the millions of dollars worth of marijuana being shipped through the mail. “Do you think that’s all for medicinal purposes?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Are you going to write me a ticket?” I asked. No. Did he have any more questions about me being a drug dealer? No, apparently not. Great. “Can I have the name of your supervisor?” He gave me a name.
The name was bullshit. It turned out Laughlin’s “supervisor” no longer works at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Eventually, I got in touch with David Bess, chief of law enforcement at DFW, who told me, yes, Laughlin worked for something called the Mountain And Valley Marijuana Investigation Team, or MAVMIT, a multi-agency anti-marijuana task force coordinated by the Department of Justice.
(By the way, Fish and Game did change its name to Fish and Wildlife in 2012. But they decided to keep the old badges around in order to save money.)
Bess saw nothing wrong with the stop and said Laughlin was completely within his authority to follow me across town and question me because of the brake light. Also, he said it was suspicious that I went from one UPS store to another. OK, maybe that’s weird. But Laughlin wouldn’t have known this if he wasn’t already creeping on me.
Bess also said that Laughlin observed that I had a backpack with me, and that it “looked heavier when you came out of the store.”
Nope, also not true. It had the same laptop and yellow notepads as when I went in.
I called Department of Justice spokesperson Kristin Ford, who said MAVMIT is tasked with finding and eradicating marijuana grows on public lands. I knew that much from Googling. And it’s true, of course, that illegal pot grows are incredibly damaging to the environment. And dangerous to people, too. A Fish and Wildlife officer working for MAVMIT shot and killed a guy earlier this year at a grow on a wildlife refuge near Elk Grove.
But when did Fish and Wildlife agents start following random people around city neighborhoods? And what are we paying for that? Does MAVMIT have a budget? Does it file annual reports?
Unfortunately, DOJ and DFW officials so far haven’t answered my questions. In fact, it seemed like they were annoyed by my queries, like I was keeping them from the important stuff they had to do. Or maybe they felt like I was asking questions that were really none of my business.
Ford at DOJ did give me one interesting detail: Laughlin was not actually with MAVMIT when he stopped me, like Bess said he was.
So I called Bess again, and this time he gave me a different story, about how Laughlin was actually helping this other marijuana task force. “How many task forces are there?” I asked. And what was the name of this other task force? Bess wouldn’t say. “Because the case they are working on is not resolved, I cannot discuss it.”
I still have a lot of questions. If the DFW is trying to catch drug dealers, do they know what they’re doing? It seems dumb and dangerous to come at people on the street and say you’ve been following them, and that you’re going to detain them—when you’re not any kind of cop that most people would recognize. And just how often is DFW “detaining” law-abiding citizens on city streets with this sort of flimsy pretext?
Now, while DFW is apparently pretty bad at guessing who’s a drug dealer, what Laughlin said about people moving weed out of state through the mail is true.
Since Proposition 215 and the “medical” marijuana boom, “there’s a glut of pot and no place to unload it,” says attorney Mark Reichel.
So the post office, UPS and FedEx store are conduits for California-grown pot headed for buyers in Maryland, or Pennsylvania, or North Carolina, you name it.
Of course, that means that more than ever cops are hovering around these mail stores, watching people come and go on their daily errands. And, apparently, even something innocuous like a backpack or a brake light can put you under suspicion.
“They are throwing probable cause out the window. It’s just a big dragnet,” says Reichel.
“Ten years ago, nobody was watching you go to the post office. Now they are. That’s the reality. There’s just way more surveillance on the mail than there was before,” he added.
I don’t want to make you nervous, but definitely don’t send your weed through the UPS Store. Maybe don’t go there at all. Or at least check your rearview mirror as you leave.