'GOOD PEOPLE WHO ... NEED IT' PROTEST RX POT ARRESTS
30 ACTIVISTS DEFEND LEGITIMACY OF MODESTO DRUG DISPENSARY

Published September 30, 2006 by Adam Ashton, Bee Staff Writer

Medical marijuana users took to the streets outside the Modesto Police Department on Friday to protest raids that shut down a McHenry Avenue clinic this week.

Some of the roughly 30 protesters said they bought cannabis from the California Healthcare Collective, whose directors were arrested Wednesday by Drug Enforcement Administration agents on suspicion of federal marijuana distribution offenses.

"The good people who really need it are being left out," said Mark Conrad, 50, a Modesto man who said he uses medical marijuana to ease continual pain in his legs.

Also Friday, Healthcare Collective directors Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Montes, both 26, pleaded not guilty to drug trafficking charges in federal court in Fresno.

Two of their employees, brothers Jose Malagon, 33, and Antonio Malagon, 28, pleaded not guilty to the same charges, a court clerk said.

All four are scheduled to be back in court Wednesday, when a judge is expected to determine whether they can post bail.

The raids on the clinic and houses associated with its employees yielded three handguns, $16,000 in cash, 60 pounds of marijuana, a 2007 Mercedes, 100 grown marijuana plants and 1,000 immature plants.

Scarmazzo is a felon who pleaded guilty to an assault charge in 2004. He cannot legally carry a gun, police Sgt. Craig Gundlach said. Police said they were not sure who owned the guns when they arrested the men this week.

In a related crackdown, drug enforcement agents tried to bust another medical marijuana dispensary just north of Modesto's city limit late Thursday.

That clinic, 28/16 on Spyres Way north of Bangs Avenue, was cleaned out by the time agents arrived, Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy Royjindar Singh said. It isn't clear who ran that clinic or how long it operated.

State law allows seriously ill people to use marijuana; federal law does not. The state further permits people to buy medical marijuana from nonprofit cooperatives if they cannot grow the plant themselves.

The California Healthcare Collective was registered as a nonprofit organization in the California secretary of state's office, though it originally filed as a for-profit corporation.

DEA: COLLECTIVE MADE $4.5M

The DEA contends the collective made $4.5 million selling marijuana since it opened in late 2004. DEA agents arrested its directors and employees after a 15-month investigation in which undercover officers bought marijuana with fake doctors' recommendations.

DEA agents and Modesto police say the clinic's marijuana circulated through the community with people buying from the dispensary and selling to others.

"This dispensary was in the business of making money, not providing a service to the needy people of Modesto," Gundlach said.

Robert Forkner, a Modesto lawyer representing Montes, said the collective was in compliance with state laws. He said it recently paid more than $100,000 in federal and state taxes on its most recent quarterly tax return.

"The government was willing to take their taxes, but then it turned around and charged them with crimes," Forkner said. "They're not guilty of any of the charges."

At Friday's protest, former Healthcare Collective customers defended the clinic as a safe place where they could get medicine they relied on to ease the symptoms of everything from arthritis to cancer.

They said the clinic verified doctors' recommendations, often turning away people who did not bring identification.

"You didn't get past the door until you were verified," said Michelle Montgomery of Empire.

Gundlach said getting in wasn't hard, and that undercover agents who bought marijuana from the clinic made the fake doctors' recommendations with home computer equipment.

Safe Access Now, a statewide medical marijuana advocacy group, organized the protest.

"You have the one medicine that actually helps these people lead a normal life and the city is turning down access," said Safe Access Now coordinator Aaron Smith.

He linked Wednesday's DEA raids to a Tuesday discussion at the City Council in which officials discussed ways to shut down the clinic. The city has tried to dislodge it for nearly a year by changing zoning laws.

The protesters were confronted by Linda Taylor, 45, a Turlock woman who views medical marijuana laws as a ruse to legalize all drugs. She called the clinic's closure a "victory" for anti-drug activists.

Taylor and a friend brought bright handmade signs criticizing medical marijuana.

"I don't believe in it. I think it's a scam," she said.

She and Santos Lopez, 29, a clinic employee, briefly traded barbs about the merits of medical marijuana.

"There are people here who do want an alternative," Lopez said.