|Jennifer Cappuccio Maher/San Bernardino Sun|
|Aaron Sandusky, president, G3 Holistic: "I had four patients in there and they were all handcuffed and interviewed"|
Justice Department denies defendant ability to show evidence of state law compliance at trial; Sandusky could face life in prison
The operator of three state-compliant medical marijuana dispensaries will be tried in federal court this week in Los Angeles. Aaron Sandusky, 42, who operated facilities in Upland, Colton and Moreno Valley, was raided by federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents last November and was charged with six felonies, including manufacturing marijuana, possession with intent to distribute, and conspiracy.
Five others were similarly charged in the raid, but they have since accepted plea deals and may be called to testify against Sandusky. If convicted on all counts, Sandusky could face life in prison. Jury selection begins at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday in a trial that is expected to last all week.
"This trial is nothing more than a cynical attempt by the federal government to intimidate dispensary operators in Los Angeles and undermine the implementation of California's medical marijuana law," said Kris Hermes, spokesperson for the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA). "The Justice Department holds all the cards in federal court and uses that leverage to terrorize the medical marijuana community."
Many of the 17,000 patients that G3 Holistic served have been forced to either purchase their medical marijuana from the illicit market or discontinue its use altogether.
|Americans for Safe Access|
|Kris Hermes, Americans for Safe Access: "This trial is nothing more than a cynical attempt by the federal government to intimidate dispensary operators in Los Angeles and undermine the implementation of California's medical marijuana law"|
Sandusky has already been denied the right to present evidence to a jury of medical use or compliance with state law, as is common in federal prosecutions, but he still hopes to use an entrapment defense at trial. There is also an issue over the number of plants seized.
Prosecutors allege that federal agents seized more than 1,000 plants, putting Sandusky at risk of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, but the defendant argues the number of plants was actually well under one thousand.
Notably, the November 1 raids on Sandusky's dispensaries and grow facilities, which he called G3 Holistic, came just a day before a lawsuit he had filed was set to be heard by the California Court of Appeal. Sandusky's lawsuit, G3 Holistic v. City of Upland, challenges the city's ban on dispensaries and established a "stay," allowing G3 Holistic to remain open pending his appeal.
Some evidence seems to suggest that city officials who were frustrated by Sandusky's legal success called in the DEA to permanently shut him down. The Upland case is currently being reviewed by the California Supreme Court, along with other similar cases challenging municipal dispensary bans.
Sandusky's trial comes only days after the City of Los Angeles rescinded its ban on dispensaries. Yet, despite the City Council's apparent willingness to return to the drawing board on medical marijuana regulations for Los Angeles, certain council members want to work with the federal government to shut down dispensaries in the area.
In late September, federal asset forfeiture proceedings were filed against three city dispensaries and letters threatening similar actions were sent to more than 70 property owners leasing to such businesses, according to the Justice Department.
Sandusky is one of more than 70 medical marijuana patients and providers prosecuted by the Justice Department since president Obama took office. Over the past six months, three federal medical marijuana cases have gone to trial, and because medical necessity and state law defenses are disallowed in federal court, they were all convicted.
Michigan caregivers Jerry and Jeremy Duval were convicted at trial in April and sentenced to 10 years and 5 years in prison, respectively. In September, Montana medical marijuana provider Christopher Williams was convicted at trial, but has not yet been sentenced. Another Montana cultivator, Richard Flor, died in federal custody in August after being convicted and sentenced to a 5-year prison term.
In a week, on October 16, oral arguments will occur before the D.C. Circuit in a federal lawsuit that could have a sweeping impact on the Justice Department's ability to prosecute medical marijuana cases like Sandusky's. The case, Americans for Safe Access v. DEA, challenges the federal government's classification of marijuana as a dangerous drug with no medical value.
If the plaintiffs prevail, people prosecuted under federal law would have the right to a medical defense. That, in turn, could discourage the federal government from prosecuting medical marijuana cases.
What: Rare federal trial of medical marijuana dispensary operator Aaron Sandusky
When: Jury selection begins Tuesday at 8:30am, trial expected to last all week
Where: Before U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson, Courtroom 15, at 312 North Spring Street, Los Angeles