Guilty pleas in Cudahy bribery case

Associated Press
Thursday, August 2, 2012

Los Angeles

David Silva, the former mayor of Cudahy, stood before a federal judge Thursday and admitted he accepted a $5,000 bribe in exchange for his support of a medical marijuana dispensary.

When asked outside court why he took the cash, Silva sheepishly said, “Greed, I guess.”

Silva, 61, and ex-Cudahy Councilman Osvaldo Conde each pleaded guilty to single counts of extortion and bribery that carry up to 30 years in prison. Both men are scheduled to be sentenced in November.

The two men, along with onetime City Manager Angel Perales, solicited and accepted $17,000 after meetings with the dispensary owner, who was working as an FBI informant. Perales pleaded guilty this week to similar charges.

Silva said it was a “stupid mistake” to take the bribe from the pot shop owner earlier this year. “It’s something I have to live with,” he said.

Conde, hands in his pockets as he left the courtroom, declined to comment.

The arrests are the latest in a series of corruption scandals involving small Los Angeles County cities. The former city manager and several other officials from neighboring Bell are awaiting trial on charges of misappropriating funds to overpay themselves.

On Tuesday, two former Lynwood City Council members were found guilty of illegally boosting their salaries and racking up inappropriate bills on city credit cards.

Court documents in the Cudahy case portrayed the suburb of 25,000 people as a corruption-riddled municipality where “money makes the monkey dance,” Perales once told the dispensary owner, according to court documents.

Conde, 50, was deemed the most powerful man in Cudahy by Perales, who said Conde and Silva weren’t typical elected officials.

“They’ve dealt with, uh, you know, people that throw money down,” Perales told the dispensary owner, according to an affidavit.

The approval of a medical marijuana dispensary, which had been prohibited in Cudahy, could have raked in huge profits. The informant estimated the clinic could generate up to $2.5 million within a year. The proposed dispensary never came before the council for approval.

As part of their plea agreements, Silva and Perales can’t be prosecuted for any crimes that arise out of related investigations, federal prosecutors said. In court documents filed in the bribery case, authorities said both men accepted cash bribes from a developer and Perales helped discard absentee ballots in two elections that supported candidates who challenged incumbents. Those accusations were not related to the proposed dispensary.

SoMa becoming free-trade zone for pot dispensaries

C.W. Nevius
SF Chronicle, Monday, July 2, 2012

Neighborhood groups have been complaining about the pot club boom South of Market for years. But now that recently approved marijuana dispensaries are starting to open, the critics can point to the map and make the case that there should be a law against “clustering.”

Across from The Chronicle at Fifth and Mission streets, workers are putting the finishing touches on a dispensary at 952 Mission, set to open in July. And in April, the City Planning Commission approved another club just around the corner at Sixth and Jessie, about half a block away.

The hearing prompted debate, but until the storefronts open, it is hard to visualize the problem.

“If there were a number of Starbucks opening on the same block, or banks, I would still be here” objecting, said Daniel Hurtado, executive director of the Central Market Community Benefit District. “There’s literally another one around the corner. What’s the need?”

Unfortunately, regulating pot clubs is not a popular position. Then-Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi pushed through regulations in 2005 that kept dispensaries from opening, unregulated, all over the city.

Unfortunately, what seemed like reasonable restrictions at the time have basically turned the South of Market district into a pot free-trade area. The idea was that a dispensary could not be placed within 1,000 feet of a school for students younger than 18 and that it had to be zoned for commercial use.

SoMa, with its condos, apartments and single men and women, fits the profile perfectly. A rectangle, from Fourth Street to 10th Street three blocks wide, is nearly all wide open. When the two new clubs open this summer, seven dispensaries will be between Fourth and 10th streets.

The irony, of course, is that everyone from Mayor Ed Lee to neighborhood activists has been trying to get new businesses to move into the area around troubled Sixth Street. But creating a San Francisco version of pot-friendly Amsterdam was not what they had in mind.

Santa Cruz Patients Collective suddenly shuts its doors

Jason HoppinSanta Cruz Sentinel:   05/31/2012

SANTA CRUZ – The number of Santa Cruz medical marijuana dispensaries was halved last weekend when the Santa Cruz Patients Collective suddenly closed its doors.

No reasons were given for the closure, and owner Ken Sampson could not be reached to comment. Speculation on why it closed ran the gamut from Sampson simply tiring of running the business to the landlord growing concerned about a recent federal crackdown on the state’s cannabis industry.

“His heart was in the right place,” said Ben Rice, a local attorney who works with medical marijuana clubs. “He was one of the first guys to really insist on the quality of the medicine. He was very determined to make sure the patients were not getting an adulterated product.”

If the crackdown, which has directly and indirectly claimed numerous dispensaries statewide, contributed to the collective’s closure, it could be the second one to shut it doors after California’s four U.S. attorneys joined forces to enforce federal prohibitions of the marijuana trade.

Earlier, Live Oak’s Crème de Canna closed, partly due to legal uncertainties that emerged after the federal enforcement effort began. One of those uncertainties has to do with building owners where dispensaries are housed, with the federal government warning some landlords that they could lose their buildings.

Marijuana advocates also say dozens of Californians involved in providing medical marijuana are now facing federal charges.

At the Patients Collective, formerly located at 115 Limekiln St., a lone remaining sign refers patients to Santa Cruz’ only other permitted pot club. Numerous other clubs operate outside city limits.

“If their patients want to come over here, they’re welcome,” said Calvin Maynor, who works at the Greenway Compassionate Relief in Santa Cruz, located blocks from the Patients Collective.

Open since 2006, the collective quickly won over skeptical neighbors in the Harvey West area.

“He turned all those people around,” Rice said.

Santa Cruz planner Mike Ferry said the city has never received complaints about Sampson’s operation. But how the city fills the now-vacant permit – potentially extremely valuable, even amid the federal crackdown – appears to be an open question.

Ferry, who has not been contacted by Sampson, said the business would have to stay dark for six months before a permit is reissued. But he did not know how the city would choose a second licensee if more than one potential operator stepped forward.

“That’s an interesting question,” Ferry said.

Farr, others to target funding for medical pot crackdown

Jason Hoppin

Santa Cruz Sentinel:   05/07/2012

Rep. Sam Farr wants to tie the federal government’s hands when it comes to medical marijuana dispensaries, joining an effort to cut off funding for a burgeoning statewide crackdown.

Farr, D-Carmel, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, and Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., are spearheading a bipartisan effort that should hit the floor of the House of Representatives today. During debate on a bill that funds the Department of Justice, the trio are expected to introduce an amendment barring the use of funds to prevent states from implementing medical pot laws.

“It is time for the federal government to stop targeting the legal vendors that are providing safe access to this treatment, and instead focus limited resources on those who sell illicit drugs,” Farr said. “The amendment I will offer with my colleagues will work to assure funds under the Department of Justice do not target the safe access to treatment patients need.”

Jack Gillund, spokesman for San Francisco-based U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, declined to comment.

For months, federal law enforcement officials in California have targeted dispensaries through warning letters and even periodic raids that appeared to target large-scale operations. The crackdown has claimed several renowned dispensaries, which chose to shutter their doors rather than fight on.

Critics say the effort represents a broken promise by President Barack Obama, who previously vowed not to use federal resources on medical marijuana. Obama recently told Rolling Stone magazine his administration doesn’t go after patients, but that it cannot ignore federal law.

About 200 dispensaries have closed across California, including the venerable Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana and the Berkeley Patients Group. Locally, former Mid-County club Crème de Canna, located near a preschool, closed amid speculation that it had received a warning letter from the feds.

Attorney Ben Rice, who represents several local clubs, said the crackdown is being selectively applied, making it difficult for patients everywhere to have access to marijuana.

“You have different readings of the law from one town to the next. The feds get invited from communities where medical marijuana is not welcome,” Rice said. “What we’ve seen happen is some of the really well-organized and patient-based dispensaries have been shut down. You can’t tell me that every single dispensary in Santa Barbara is violating the law.”

Last week, 10 dispensaries in the Santa Barbara area received warning letters from prosecutors. The city of Monterey has passed a moratorium on clubs, while dispensary regulations in Santa Cruz County are suspended due to an ongoing court case.

“Some don’t want medical marijuana around and just call the feds in, and others are targeted because they’re perceived to be hurting law enforcement’s picture,” Rice said. “I think that hurts their narrative. There are some people in law enforcement who still just don’t buy medical marijuana as a legitimate form of medication.”

Though the raids have been criticized by everyone from Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, to Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., last week California’s congressional delegation began to push back in earnest. On May 2, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, issued a press release blasting the crackdown.

That is being followed by today’s expected action. Even if the effort to tie the Justice Department’s hands is unsuccessful, Rice praised Farr and Rohrabacher for bringing it forward.

“Absolutely,” Rice said. “It’s really important that they speak up.”

Federal move to seize 2 Novato pot-club buildings

by Vivian Ho
SF Chronicle, April 26, 2012

Federal prosecutors are moving to seize two Novato buildings that house medical-marijuana dispensaries, following through on warnings they began issuing last fall when they announced a campaign against California’s pot clubs.

The U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco went to federal court Monday asking that the landlords of the Green Door Wellness Education Center and the neighboring Green Tiger dispensary forfeit their properties on Redwood Boulevard. By Wednesday, Green Tiger had already closed.

Federal prosecutors have sent letters to at least 300 dispensaries in California, threatening prosecution and asset forfeiture for allegedly violating federal law against marijuana distribution, said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical marijuana group.

About 300 dispensaries have voluntarily shut down, including five in San Francisco, Hermes said. Some had been pressured by federal prosecutors, and others were scared off by the government’s campaign, he said.

But Hermes said he could “count on one hand” the number of asset forfeitures the federal government has pursued.

“It’s rare for them to act on their threats, period,” Hermes said. “I think they’re trying to make an example to the broader population.”

Sara Zalkin, an attorney who specializes in marijuana cases, said she knew of no previous instances in which federal prosecutors have gone to court to seize a dispensary landlord’s building.

“They sent letters threatening landlords, basically saying that they were putting them on notice because they believed there were controlled substances being stored or distributed on their properties,” Zalkin said. “But I have not personally experienced or heard of the feds actually moving toward forfeiture.”

Under state law, distribution of marijuana for medical use is legal, but it’s illegal under federal law. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco declined to comment on the Novato cases.

The complaints prosecutors filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco cite alleged violations of federal law and municipal zoning codes.

Lawrence Pebbles, director of the Green Door Wellness Education Center, said he plans to continue business as usual until a judge tells him otherwise. He’s had a tense relationship with his landlord, David Cesena, in the past – Cesena recently tried to evict him, but a Marin County Superior Court judge ruled against him.

Cesena could not be reached for comment Thursday. Neither could Green Tiger’s landlords, Kerry and Martin O’Brien.

Pebbles opened his dispensary in April 2010. He said his client list has grown to almost 1,800, with 20 to 30 regulars a day.

“Without a legitimate, safe access, patients will be forced to seek alternatives, which are less safe, less accessible,” Pebbles said. “There’s a higher level of vulnerability when you have to go to the black market.”

He added, “There are a lot of arguments in both directions, but all I know is that prohibition didn’t work for alcohol, and it doesn’t seem to be working for cannabis either.”

Stop the federal pot raids


SF Chronicle, April 5, 2012

A months-long crackdown on medical marijuana by federal prosecutors has reached new heights with this week’s raids on Oakland dispensaries. It’s time to call off the overboard tactics and deal sensibly with regulating a drug that increasing numbers of Americans feel poses little harm.

The latest incident only furthers the tone-deaf image of the U.S. Department of Justice, whose agents stormed well-known medical pot dispensaries in Oakland, the de facto center of efforts to expand marijuana cultivation and use. Since last fall, federal officials have sent warning letters to landlords of outlets and served notice that Washington won’t tolerate medical marijuana sales.

It’s a ridiculous stance that mocks a serious issue. Last fall, federal prosecutors said the therapeutic use of pot had led to abuses, crime and profiteering. Spend 15 minutes outside a dispensary and it’s easy to see their point: a steady stream of customers who hardly resemble the sick and suffering intended to benefit under a “compassionate use” initiative passed by California voters in 1996.

But Prohibition Era-style sweeps won’t work. First, it’s a confusing message coming from the Obama administration, which telegraphed three years ago that a crackdown was a low priority. Since then, the policy has gone in the opposite direction: Stop all sales now.

Second, easing the availability of medical marijuana also has lowered the public’s fear factor of the drug. The result? Washington is losing all credibility by pursing efforts to shut down dispensaries. One of this week’s targets – the Oaksterdam University that teaches pot cultivation and legal rules – suggests that Department of Justice officials make no distinction among operators.

Finally, the federal raids ignore the core of the issue: bridging the gap between unbending federal controls and growing numbers of states, including California, that want updated consideration of the drug.

To be sure, court rulings and legal obstacles make change difficult. In California’s case, there needs to be more debate and study on clarifying a confused picture. The voter-passed initiative didn’t spell out rules on supplying marijuana to dispensaries, quality control, medical standards or financial operations, so there is plenty California can do to clean up its act.

Yet this confusion doesn’t excuse this week’s raids. This state has moved beyond a total ban on marijuana to a new phase: finding a workable way to allow the compassionate use of a drug. Washington should wake up to reality.

Boulder Creek Collective worker says pot gave him his life back

Rosy Weiser
SC Sentinel:   01/28/2012

SOQUEL – Boulder Creek Collective founder Marc Whitehill, a former nurse, has seen a lot of people come through his doors seeking medical marijuana, enough that he thinks he has a pretty clear idea of the patient demographic at most local dispensaries.

He estimates 60 percent are 40 or older and use cannabis “to avoid taking much harsher pharmaceutical alternatives to treat nausea, sleeplessness, anxiety and aches and pains,” he said. They use the medicine instead of resorting to common prescription painkillers and tranquilizers.

Another 20 percent are youngsters with no visible signs of illness.

“With them, I have to trust the physician that they made the right call,” he said.

But the last category, the 20 percent who are chronically or terminally ill receive special attention at the Boulder Creek Collective. If not for these patients, medical cannabis might not have grown into a burgeoning industry.

One such patient is Gary Goldsworthy, 42, who was given a free membership at the collective in exchange for volunteer hours about two years ago. Goldsworthy was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder that triggers the immune system to attack the gastro-intestinal tract, when he was 27.

During a long period of remission, Goldsworthy had been a successful musician who toured nationally with acclaimed blues artist, James Armstrong. But an additional diagnosis of skin cancer and the removal of several lymph nodes a few years ago caused a resurgence of the Crohn’s and sent him downhill fast.

When he first discovered marijuana as medicine, he had been housebound for more than a year, confined to his bed and the bathroom, hardly able to eat and suffering from diarrhea and intense abdominal pain, among other symptoms.

“I kept on getting advised by nurses to try [marijuana] because I don’t get a natural appetite,” he said, explaining that smoking has allowed him to regain some semblance of his former life, bringing him out of the house and allowing him to eat regularly and have more energy.

Against the advice of his doctors, Goldsworthy eventually decided to forgo the mainstream treatments that cost $50,000 a year, in favor of marijuana which he got for free, and which he thought did a better job addressing his symptoms.

“My symptoms are semi-manageable now,” he said. “I was on disability and SSI but I’ve been able to be self-sufficient.”

Goldsworthy now works as a part-time paid employee at the collective handling admissions. He continues to receive enough free medicine to smoke three to four times a day, around meal times.