Commentary: Marijuana and the badge
September 7, 2008
By STACEY WARDE
When the sheriff came to town, backed by countless federal agents, to roust a legitimate, city-approved business, we could all breathe a huge sigh of relief.
No more squirrelly riff-raff posing as patients to get their marijuana fix. No more “medical” marijuana dispensaries in San Luis Obispo County. No more respect for community-based values and standards in which local citizens govern themselves.
We commend the sheriff for taking federal law into his own hands and doing the job he wasn’t given to do—busting someone who wasn’t a threat to the community.
The sheriff, and the feds, got their man, wanted for distribution of large quantities of marijuana, perhaps forgetting that California State Law recognizes a patient’s “right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes.”
Once again, according to the sheriff, we’re safe from dangerous criminals like Charles Lynch committing heinous acts right under our noses—providing medical marijuana to people whose doctors recommend it.
A prolonged “criminal” investigation by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department helped the federally funded Drug Enforcement Agency put Morro Bay’s only legal proprietor of medical marijuana into the slammer.
Lynch, a compassionate caregiver recently convicted in federal court for the sale of marijuana, faces up to 100 years in a federal penitentiary—a punishment that certainly fits the crime.
Sheriff Patrick Hedges reportedly conducted a prolonged and extensive stakeout of the green drug store in Morro Bay, whose citizens had already welcomed the business and embraced Mr. Lynch as one of their own.
The sheriff, ignoring community standards and its support of the dispensary, apparently sent one of his own investigators to pose as a patient to catch Lynch in the act of selling drugs.
He also reportedly employed paid informants with criminal records to bust Lynch and shut down the dispensary, despite the fact that he was operating within state and local laws.
Sheriff Hedges’ dogged pursuit of Lynch paid off. Lynch awaits Oct. 20 sentencing with the possibility of spending the rest of his life in federal prison—and the dispensary is long gone.
All this with funding presumably made possible through local tax dollars. It’s also possible the sheriff had access to funding from the feds, but we’ll never know because, as sheriff’s spokesman Rob Bryn notes, the department doesn’t “keep track of those kinds of figures.”
SLO County citizens, concerned about how their local tax dollars are spent, need to ask the sheriff: How much did you spend? Was it worth it? And, as SLO Attorney Lou Koory, who early represented Lynch, asked recently: “How does this serve the community interest?”
As citizens who pay the sheriff’s salary, we also have to ask: Why are SLO County’s tax dollars being spent to aid the feds?
Marijuana, of course, is listed as a dangerous drug by the federal government, and it’s therefore a crime to possess, sell or transport the hazardous contraband anywhere in the United States. Tons of money and resources go into the fight against marijuana growing and trafficking.
Basically, it’s the job of federal agents to conduct that fight, especially in the 13 states, including California, that have legalized marijuana for medical use.
But not here, and in a few other small communities across the country, where local law enforcement have chosen to run with the feds, and make marijuana drug busts their business too.
Local law enforcement, such as the San Luis Obispo Police and the county sheriff, have argued that they’re in a quandary, left with no choice but to enforce federal law or run into trouble with the higher agencies tasked with eliminating the dangerous marijuana drug.
Hence, you have lawmen like Sheriff Hedges who see it as their sworn duty to use local resources to conduct the business of the federal government.
But is it the task of local law enforcement, using local tax dollars, to perform this service on behalf of the feds?
“We get this question a lot,” says Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access [ASA], a grassroots organization “advancing legal medical marijuana therapeutics and research,” which has been closely monitoring Lynch’s case and reviewing Hedges’ actions.
“Unfortunately,” Elford adds, “it’s not uncommon” for dispensaries go to down with the aid of local lawmen like Hedges whose job is presumably to enforce state and local laws.
The sheriff, Elford continues, probably didn’t do anything illegal in pursuing Lynch, although the organization is considering filing a lawsuit against him; Hedges’ pursuit of Lynch is “more morally objectionable than anything else. …It’s a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.”
Muted protests have gone up about the sheriff’s role in this latest bust, and one former patient of the dispensary is suing the department for invasion of privacy.
All patients’ health records from the dispensary were confiscated and hauled away, a potential violation of federal law, which protects an individual’s medical history.
As far as we know, the sheriff never proved to a judge that he had probable cause to invade and shut down the dispensary. No local judge that we know of granted such a warrant. The sheriff also did not consult local authorities before notifying the DEA about Lynch.
We do know that he assisted the DEA under a federal warrant to take down Lynch and the medical marijuana dispensary, and that a model Morro Bay businessman may go to prison because of it.
Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at