Opinion Columns & Blogs

Consequence of following the pot law

When Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act, was passed by California voters in 1996 by almost 57 percent of the electorate, only two coastal counties voted against the marijuana-based initiative: Del Norte County in the far northwest of the state, and San Luis Obispo County.

In retrospect, this county’s political position on a state law that allows a patient with a doctor’s recommendation to legally use pot for medical reasons may have been a harbinger for the Dec. 27, 2010, bust of 12 people who were later dubbed the “Doobie Dozen.”

Paso Robles resident Peter Miller was in his 50s doing construction work with a bad back, bad knee and a shoulder that needed surgery. So, in late 2008, he sought and received a doctor’s recommendation for using pot to alleviate his pain and began growing enough of the plant to meet his medical needs.

The following year, after researching 2004 state legislation — Senate Bill 420 — that broadened Proposition 215 guidelines to include transportation of marijuana through legally formed collectives or cooperatives, Miller formed a collective called Harmonic Alliance out of his Paso Robles home.

State Health and Safety Code amendments under SB 420 seem pretty clear, according to a Patients’ Guide to Medical Marijuana Law in California:

“Within the context of a bona fide collective or caregiver relationship, SB 420 provides protection against charges for possession for sale (H&SC 11359); transportation, sale, giving away, furnishing, etc. (H&SC 11360).”

Miller says he double- and triple-checked the rules for operating a collective. He filled out all of the state-mandated paperwork and believed he was impeccably covered with regard to the law. Yet, by his own admission, Miller says he “took a calculated risk” on his new career.

The calculated risk in question was the county’s law enforcement attitude toward growing pot, which has been hard line, illustrated by the 2007 bust of Charles Lynch.

Lynch had operated a medical marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay before he was arrested and the store closed. He subsequently received a year-and-one-day sentence.

Additionally, federal agents were now regularly closing down similar dispensaries around the state, threatening asset forfeiture of real estate as their stick because, in the final tally, marijuana use or possession is still against the law in any form at the federal level.

Nonetheless, from late 2009 to Dec. 26, 2010, Miller made deliveries without incident to about 100 people who had paid a fee to join his collective.

What he didn’t know is that the now-defunct narcotic task force was using an undercover agent (with a physician’s permit slip) to buy pot from Miller on three occasions between September and December.

The task force, comprised of some 50 members of county law enforcement agencies and the state Department of Justice, dropped its hammer Dec. 27, 2010.

Those caught up in what was called Operation Green Sweep included nine Central Coast residents from Pismo Beach to Paso Robles, as well as three individuals from Southern California.

By Miller’s reckoning, the bust was horrific on multiple levels.

“First, my great-grandfather was one of the first constables of Paso Robles; my grandfather was in on the capture of John Dillinger in the 1930s, so there’s law enforcement in my family. In fact, no one in the history of my family had ever gone to jail. I told the officers that I was legitimate and that I’d show them all of my paperwork to prove it.”

He was told he’d be seeing eight years in prison.

And then there were the physical indignities of the arrest itself. It was around 7 a.m., and he was made to stand outside in shorts and a T-shirt for 40 minutes in 31-degree weather.

He was handcuffed, put in an unmarked car and taken to the Paso Robles home of Charles and Rachel Tamagni, who were also part of Green Sweep. “I didn’t know what was going on. I was scared to death,” Miller said.

Rachel Tamagni didn’t know Miller and asked the agents what Miller was doing in their house.

As the sweep of arrests continued for the next couple of hours, Miller had to urinate. His pleas to be allowed to do so, as well as the pleadings of others who were now in a van, went unheeded and Miller was forced to wet himself.

Meanwhile, another couple that operated a collective had their children placed in protective custody of a relative after agents entered their home with automatic weapons drawn. Computers and various other assets were seized from each location. The Tamagni’s Chihuahua died of cardiac arrest shortly after their arrests. Homes were allegedly tossed and trashed.

As Patrick Fisher, attorney for nine of the defendants later noted: “Everybody’s worst nightmare, they’re living it right now.”

For Miller, that nightmare has meant that between Dec. 27, 2010, and Aug. 13, 2012, he’s made 18 court appearances for arraignment, re-arraignment, motions, pre-trial meetings, readiness hearings, five changes of judges and two changes of assistant district attorneys.

All of this legal wrangling, according to Fisher, was pursued by the DA’s Office to bring clarity to the law, although the appellate courts have upheld the guidelines of Proposition 215 and SB 420.

On Aug. 14, Peter Miller had all charges dropped, without his case going to appeal by the DA’s Office. The same can’t be said for the other defendants, who are facing perhaps another year of legal wrangling because of the DA Office’s belief that the state Supreme Court will give yet greater clarification of the law. Attorney Fisher doubts that will happen.

And Miller today? The 43-year county resident may not be a totally broken man, but he’s one who has pretty much lost everything: his wife, his savings and bank accounts, personal property, possibly his house and his health.

At 58 years old, he’s back in construction with a bad back, bad knee and a shoulder that needs surgery.

Yet he’s more quizzical and philosophical than overtly angry.

“I can’t believe that through all the levels of law enforcement that not one of them said, ‘Hey, this is a bad idea.’ All they had to do was knock on our doors and ask for our paperwork.

“I tried to be compassionate and humane, but the cost is too dear. They took everything, even though I was following the law.”

Reach Bill Morem at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.