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2 West Hollywood medical marijuana dispensaries raided by federal agents

March 15, 2011 |  8:48 pm

A law enforcement officer carries away evidence from a raid Tuesday at a West Hollywood medical marijuana dispensary. Federal drug enforcement agents Tuesday raided two West Hollywood medical marijuana stores in the first such action in the city since the Obama administration decided two years ago to take a hands-off approach to dispensaries that abide by state laws.

The dispensaries -- Alternative Herbal Health Services and Zen Healing on Santa Monica Boulevard -- are among four that the city has authorized to operate. West Hollywood was one of the first California cities to regulate medical marijuana sales and is often cited as a model.

Sarah Pullen, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman, confirmed the raids, saying they started about 2:10 p.m. and were conducted with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. She declined to say what led to the raids or what was seized at the stores.

“The warrants are under seal by the courts, so I can’t get into any details as to anything further,” she said. “It’s part of an ongoing operation.”

Bill Kroger, an attorney who represents the operator of Zen Healing, said he arrived half an hour after federal agents served the warrant. He said he saw about half-a-dozen DEA agents inside the store and a few sheriff’s deputies outside. He said five or six employees were in handcuffs.

“It didn’t seem like something they were in a hurry to wrap up,” he said. “They don’t have to worry about protesters coming anymore.”

More than five hours after the agents arrived at Zen Healing, they were still at work inside the glass-front store. A hand-lettered sign taped to the door said: “Closed permanently.” The store’s ragged-edged neon marijuana leaf was unlit.

Kroger said agents seized marijuana and cash, but he did not know how much. “I’d say they have a good amount of money,” he said. He also said that DEA agents had the store’s operator in custody.

Pullen confirmed that federal agents had one person in custody.

West Hollywood has prided itself on diligent oversight of its dispensaries and the raids came as a shock to activists.

“This is incredibly unsettling that the DEA would strike permitted collectives in a sanctuary city,” said Dege Coutee, who runs the Patient Advocacy Network. “I hope that this is not going to be indicative for what the rest of our summer season will look like.”

The DEA raided five of six dispensaries in West Hollywood in 2007, but has left the city’s stores alone since then.

“It’s a very unpleasant surprise, of course,” said Don Duncan, who runs Los Angeles Patients & Caregivers Group, a West Hollywood dispensary that was not raided, and is the California director for Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy organization.

Duncan said that the DEA has conducted about a dozen raids in California since the Obama administration adopted its new approach. “That’s obviously disappointing, although it is an order of magnitude less than what we saw under the Bush administration,” he said.

Duncan visited both dispensaries while federal agents were still there. “It was remarkably discreet at both locations,” he said. He said he talked to the operators of the dispensaries and said they seemed very surprised that they were targeted.

“My gut instinct is these are one-off raids,” he said. “I don’t believe this is part of a sweep.”

RELATED:

A federal about-face on medical marijuana

-- John Hoeffel

Photo: A law enforcement officer carries away evidence from a raid Tuesday at a West Hollywood medical marijuana dispensary. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

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