On Oct. 13, heavily armed Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided Northstone Organics, a medical marijuana cooperative in Mendocino County. The farm is part of a county-wide program that remains the only effort in California to impose local controls on marijuana production. The program has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for the sheriff’s department and has become a model for other counties looking to bring order to the medical marijuana industry.
The Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED examined Mendocino’s experiment in legalizing medical marijuana cultivation in this summer’s PBS FRONTLINE episode “The Pot Republic” and has obtained exclusive access to footage from the Oct. 13 raid.
In California, federal prosecutors are cracking down on the state’s booming marijuana industry. The state was the first to make medical marijuana legal, but the feds claim the law is now a shelter for illegal profiteers. Reporter Michael Montgomery looks at how the crackdown is affecting one pioneering effort to regulate medical marijuana production. Our story was produced as part of a collaboration of the Center for Investigative Reporting, FRONTLINE and KQED Public Radio.
Reporter Michael Montgomery: Matthew Cohen cultivates medicinal marijuana on a 7-acre farm set amid rolling vineyards in Northern California. And for the past year, he’s been operating legally – atleast in the eyes of local law enforcement. His marijuana plants are protected by these tags.
Matt Cohen: It says Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department on it; it’s upside down, though.
Reporter: This program is unique in California and has allowed Cohen’s nonprofit cooperative to expand around the state.
Cohen: We’re about 1,700 members now.
Reporter: County rules allow Cohen to grow up to 99 plants ¬– provided he submits to inspections by sheriff’s deputies and complies with state law. It’s enough marijuana to keep his co-op members supplied for many months.
Cohen: We were just getting ready to start harvesting. You know, we figured that we were compliant with state law and compliant with local regulations, and that’s not what the federal government was interested in.
Reporter: But Cohen was wrong. On October 13th, heavily armed federal agents stormed Cohen’s compound.
Cohen: This is where our dogs were sleeping when they started barking, then I looked out the window and saw all the cars. Four or five, you know, federal agent vehicles – you could tell with the blacked-out windows and the blacked-out rims, come cruising in here very fast. Everybody hopped out of the car very quickly. I told my wife, “We’re being raided.” They said, “Open up, federal agents; we have a warrant.” And I said, “I’m opening the door right now,” and I opened the door to ¬– you know, they had the battering ram ready to go through the door, and they grabbed me, slammed me up against the wall here, cuffed me.
Reporter: As the agents searched other buildings on the property, Cohen’s state-of-the-art security system recorded their moves.
Cohen: There’s a machine gun right there.
Reporter: Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana remains illegal, and drug agents are stepping up raids across the state to curtail California’s marijuana industry.
Cohen: Here, you can see that they tore through all our camping stuff, and this is recycling that they went through.
Reporter: Before the agents discovered most of Cohen’s surveillance gear, cameras caught them searching through his business files. Meticulous record-keeping is required by county law. But there’s a twist: The same documents that allow Cohen to operate legally in Mendocino can be used against him as evidence in a federal criminal prosecution. It was only after the DEA raid was under way that Sheriff Tom Allman learned one of the farmers in his inspection program was the target.
Allman: That afternoon, after I assumed that everything had cleared, I called Matt Cohen. I asked him how he was treated. He said he was treated fair, he said he wasn’t arrested and said that they cut down marijuana plants, 99, and I believe that’s what their records show also. I assured him that in my opinion, as far as local and state laws were concerned, he was abiding by those laws.
Reporter: Days before the raid on Cohen’s farm, California’s four U.S. attorneys announced a major offensive against the state’s marijuana industry.
Melinda Haag: One of the reasons that we are making these announcements today is to try to put to rest the notion that large marijuana businesses can shelter themselves under state law and operate without fear of federal enforcement.
Reporter: Targets also include property owners who lease land to growers and distributors. Even newspapers and magazines that carry ads for medical marijuana are under scrutiny.
Joseph Russoniello: The folks that say, “Here I am, and I dare you,’ they make themselves prime targets by their audacity and by the size of their operation.
Reporter: Joseph Russoniello served as a U.S. attorney under four presidents. He says advertising is just one indication that most medical marijuana outfits in California are legitimate targets for the feds.
Russoniello: I think the U.S. attorneys would agree that 96-98 percent of all the operators in the state were out of compliance because they were commercial enterprises; they were not limiting themselves to people in their jurisdiction. As soon as you cross county lines, packaging it, suggesting you have a client base or patients really are all over the state, you are basically in a commercial enterprise for profit.
Reporter: The crackdown triggered protests and a lawsuit from medical marijuana supporters. They accused the Obama administration of backtracking on what they say were earlier promises to leave states alone when it comes to medical marijuana. In Mendocino County, officials worry that the raid on Matt Cohen’s farm undercuts their effort to strictly regulate marijuana growing.
John McCowen: People are wondering what is behind this, what happens next, am I personally at risk. We had an individual who was doing everything they can do to be as legal as they could with local and state law, adhering strictly to the letter of the law all the way down the line. If the feds are going to raid him, then no one is safe.
Reporter: John McCowen didn’t start out as a medical marijuana advocate. In fact, he supported bans on outdoor growing. But he says the county’s modest cultivation program has helped bring order out of chaos.
McCowen: By bringing the production of medical marijuana above ground, to a place where it is regulated by the sheriff, arguably tremendously increases public safety and environmental protection. The raid, if it has the impact of driving people out of the program and back underground, will have the opposite effect.
Cohen: Well, here’s what’s left. Right there.
Cohen: It certainly sends the message that the federal government would prefer that collectives and co-ops operate underground, unregulated. It’s appalling to me that illegal farms are existing all around this county and that they’re going to come after us.
Reporter: In fact, local law enforcement continues to target large-scale illegal pot farms. And they’re using fees collected from permitted growers to help pay for raids and officer training. Justice Department officials declined to comment on Mendocino’s ordinance. And while the feds have yet to directly challenge the program in court, the recent raids leave the Sheriff’s Department squeezed between local and federal law.
Allman: If the Mendocino County ordinance is in violation of federal law, I want to be told that by the highest court in the land. But if it’s not in violation, I want to be told that, too.
Russoniello: Look, we have consequences. There are things that we have to do to enforce federal law, whether you’re in the way of our doing it or you’re half-heartedly cooperating with us, or you’re indifferent to us – the fact of the matter is, we have federal mandates; we will follow those laws.
Reporter: Russoniello says federal prosecutors in the other 15 states with medical marijuana and laws and the District of Columbia will be following the crackdown in California closely.
The raid on Cohen’s farm is cited in a recent lawsuit filed by Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Melinda Haag, accusing them of using coercive tactics to interfere with the powers delegated to the states.