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Pot dispensary raids put tactics in question

I don’t know what the flak-jacketed federal agents expected to find during their commando-style raid Thursday on the Organica Collective, a pot dispensary with such a mellow vibe that its business card features a dove and a cross, and a promise to provide “the best quality, price and selection of medical marijuana on the Westside.”

Drug Enforcement Administration agents cut open a safe and hauled off boxes of records, a pair of flat screen monitors listing available varieties of weed, and the contents of an ATM. The place was left a mess, with receipts dumped on the floor and empty bottles and vials scattered around.

And they frightened the customers and employees by storming in “in full combat gear,” customer Clyde Carey told Times reporter Tami Abdollah, “like literally an episode of ’24' when they bust in on a terrorist cell.”

One employee was so angry when he was uncuffed after four hours, he likened the raid to being “robbed by a bunch of thugs downtown.” Then he scrounged around and found a bud of marijuana the agents had missed, stuffed it in a bong, took a puff and calmed down.

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The feds didn’t say what made them target Organica, a warehouse operation on a industrial stretch of Washington Boulevard, not far from Venice Beach and across the street from Starbucks, the supplier of choice for caffeine addicts. DEA spokeswoman Sarah Pullen told me Friday that she can’t comment because the warrant is under seal.

Maybe it was the 74 strains of marijuana Organica lists for sale on the giant flat screens in its lobby. Or the bongs scattered around its “smoking lounge,” where customers can test the product. Or the outdoor garden, where a few marijuana seedlings seem to have taken root among the vegetables. Or that the business has been growing so fast, dozens of new “patients” sign up each week.

Any of those would be red flags to me.

“I’m not sure what to make of it all right now,” Organica employee Abby Boles told me on Friday by phone from Venice Beach. The dispensary reopened for business, she said, but she was taking a day off to recover.

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Boles, 23, has worked at Organica for eight months. She was at the counter Thursday weighing out a gram of Purple Kush for a customer when the raid began.

“It’s been like a hidden sanctuary in the chaos of Los Angeles,” she said. But now, “I’m leaning toward liking it less.”

She doesn’t know whether neighbors or others complained about the shop or its operations.

“We haven’t had any robberies or crime problems,” she said. “Our clientele is not sketchy people. . . . It’s cancer patients, hippie types, people you wouldn’t expect to go in there. Business sort of people. Our security guard isn’t even armed!”

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She said the agents confiscated 50 pounds of marijuana.

“That’s $100,000 of inventory,” she said.

Boles asked what I thought was a logical question: Why, when medical marijuana distribution is legal in California, did federal agents burst in “and just take all of our stuff?”

It’s simple: Even though Californians voted to make marijuana available to people with medical needs, federal law still makes it a crime to grow, sell or smoke the weed. Two appellate court decisions in California said federal laws don’t take priority, but that hasn’t stopped federal authorities.

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I’m sure there are some dispensaries that ought to be shut down. They have made a cash cow out of the “compassionate use” decree and ignored rules aimed at protecting teens. Last year, federal officials indicted a dispensary owner who reportedly made more than $1.7 million in marijuana sales a month, and a doctor accused of writing recommendations for minors.

The feds aren’t going after patients or employees, but trying to put the squeeze on growers and the owners of dispensaries, to blunt the growth of California’s burgeoning marijuana industry.

I think an orderly crackdown is overdue. I’ve visited several dispensaries and have seen too many healthy-looking young people go in and out. But I’ve also heard from too many seriously ill patients who lost safe sources of pain relief when their dispensaries were shut down indiscriminately.

Compassion aside, is that any way to treat an industry that generates $100 million in tax revenue each year, in a state so broke that some government workers now make minimum wage?

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sandy.banks@latimes.com


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