Drug bust in San Francisco could be start of new campaign against pot

Indictments have been issued by federal authorities charging 19 people with running a $5 million international drug ring that used three medical marijuana dispensaries as a front.

Since California legalized the drug as medicine, dozens of cannabis clubs have thrived in San Francisco but officials declared that the busts would not undermine the city's role as a haven for medical marijuana users.

Apparently the indictments are the result of a two-year investigation by U.S. drug agents into a network that allegedly cultivated at least 17,000 marijuana plants, trafficked in Ecstasy and engaged in money laundering and international bulk cash smuggling.

Kevin Ryan, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, says this is not about ill people using marijuana, but about a widespread criminal enterprise.

Medical marijuana advocates and supporters however say it remains unclear whether the bust was the start of a renewed campaign by U.S. drug agents against pot dispensaries.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says he hopes it is an anomaly.

Bruce Mirken, a Marijuana Policy Project spokesman, suggests at the very least it is a sign that the DEA are watching people who use medical marijuana.

Javier Pena, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's special agent in charge of the San Francisco office, refused to link the bust to a renewed campaign against dispensaries but says however, that a message had been sent to 'purveyors of medicinal pot'.

Pena says although some of the public think they can disregard the courts and Congress on this matter, the DEA will not be among them.

San Francisco has been struggling recently to control the growing number of storefront medicinal pot dispensaries, which to date number about 35, and even some local leaders, though supportive of cannabis patients, have called for a reduction to as few as eight clubs.

City leaders are still however talking of San Francisco remaining a bulwark of support for California's medical marijuana law, which directly conflicts with U.S. statutes prohibiting cannabis use for any purpose.

Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the city attorney, told a crowd of 75 patients and pot activists on the steps of City Hall that medical marijuana remained legal in the state, and that San Francisco officials respect the rights of the ill to engage in "the compassionate use of cannabis".

Three people have been charged with possession and with intent to distribute Ecstasy, and two others were charged with intent to commit money laundering. An arrest warrant has been issued for another man in connection with the case.

According to authorities, each count of conspiracy to cultivate marijuana carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, while conspiring to distribute Ecstasy can carry up to 20 years.

A money-laundering conviction can result in 20 years along with a $500,000 fine.

Authorities say the three cannabis clubs involved in the raid, were a key part of the ring.

A criminal complaint filed in the case contains alleged statements made to an undercover drug officer by Enrique Chan, owner of one dispensary targeted in the bust.

Chan is supposed to have estimated to agent Pena that only about half the patients had legitimate medical need.

He has hired several criminal defense attorneys, including famed drug lawyer Tony Serra and former San Francisco District Attorney Terrence Hallinan to defend him against the charges.

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