By Phillip Smith
Police, including DEA agents, raided five properties associated with a well-known medical marijuana products manufacturer in Northern California's Sonoma County Wednesday morning, detaining at least nine people and arresting one on suspicion of felony drug manufacture for his role in cannabis oil production.
Although medical marijuana has been legal in the state since voters approved it two decades ago, it was only last year that the legislature moved to bring state-wide regulation to the rapidly growing industry, and that won't actually happen until 2018. In the meantime, medical marijuana businesses are operating in a sphere of unsettled legality where, as California NORML put it in an email alert about the raids, "there's plenty of gray area to generate busts between now and then.
The operation raided was Care By Design (CBD Guild), which produces CBD-rich cannabis oils for use in sprays, gels, and cannabis oil cartridges for vaporizers. The company offers products with five different ratios of CBD to THC so "patients can adjust their cannabis medicine to suit their specific conditions and personal preferences."
CBD (cannabidiol) is more sought after for medicinal purposes; THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the cannabinoid that gets you high.
Santa Rosa Police spokesman Lt. Mike Lazzarini told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat that a hundred Santa Rosa police, Sonoma County sheriff's deputies, and DEA agents raided the operations because they were using illegal and hazardous production methods---producing the oil with the use of butane, which is a fire and explosion hazard, and which is forbidden under state law.
"From a law enforcement standpoint this is not a legal process when it involves processes that are dangerous," Lazzarini said.
The police spokesman also said that Care By Design's facilities were in violation of Santa Rosa municipal codes and not properly permitted.
Care By Design, which is organized as a non-profit collective under the rubric of the CBD Guild, flatly rejected law enforcement assertions that it was illegally using butane to make the cannabis oil.
"Contrary to initial press reports, none of the Care By Design facilities are involved in the production of hash; nor is butane used in the company's extraction process," it said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "Care By Design utilizes a non-volatile supercritical CO2 extraction method, and does not produce any hash, rosin, wax, shatter or similar products that are popular amongst recreational users."
And it was not pleased with the raids, in which police seized equipment, computers, product, payroll, and financial paperwork.
"This law enforcement action is unprecedented, unfortunate, and has the potential to deprive thousands of profoundly sick patients of much needed medicine," said collective spokesman Nick Caston. "We will cooperate fully with law enforcement in an effort to resolve this as quickly as possible, and hope to have our several dozen employees in Sonoma County back to work this week."
Later Wednesday, CBD Guild attorney Joe Rogoway, a veteran Santa Rosa marijuana attorney, reiterated the charge that police were mischaracterizing the business, which he said was above board and operating lawfully.
"They weren't using butane, they use a process that includes CO2 which is a flame retardant; CO2 is what's in fire extinguishers," Rogoway told the Press-Democrat. "It's not criminalized in California law."
The Guild suspects a disgruntled former employee provoked the raids by making false claims to law enforcement, Rogoway said.
Police attempted to play up the criminal element in their description of the man jailed in the sole major arrest during the raids. They described operations manager Dennis Franklin Hunter as a criminal with a history of evading arrest, justifying the $5 million dollar bail on which he is being held.
But what he had been busted for was---wait for it---growing marijuana in Humboldt County in 1998. But the feds couldn't find him until 2002, when he was sentenced to 5 ½ years in federal prison. On a second occasion, Hunter was the subject of a manhunt in Arkansas after US Homeland Security asked Little Rock authorities to detain him because they suspected he had drugs on his plane. But he took off after refueling as deputies approached and only later met with authorities.
Caston said Hunter's history was one of being a pioneer in California's marijuana industry.
"They're the folks that have been leading the way, breaking down the stigma, breaking down the misconceptions," he said. "He's really a visionary, along with the other folks in our company, trying to bring practices that are safe. This (law enforcement) action is very surprising."
And while this all gets sorted out, thousands of patients in dispensaries across the state who rely on Care By Design's products will just have to tough it out.