September 26, 2002
Medical Pot Farm Brings Drug War Too Close to Home Marijuana: Residents feel relief, guilt after feds raid operation in Sonoma County.
By ERIC BAILEY, TIMES STAFF WRITER
SEBASTOPOL, Calif. -- First came the snarling guard dogs, then the barbed-wire fence and 24-hour security patrols, all of it smack in the middle of a leafy neighborhood on the outskirts of this wine country town.
Residents along Martin Lane reached a collective conclusion this summer: Robert Schmidt's medicinal pot farm was a problem. An armed camp, they called it. A magnet for thieves. A danger to neighborhood kids.
Their worries seemed to abate when carbine-toting federal drug agents rumbled in Sept. 12, arrested Schmidt and uprooted 3,454 marijuana plants reputedly intended as medicine. But concern lingers on this dead-end gravel lane in the heart of get-along Sonoma County.
Schmidt's neighbors remain perplexed that their pleas for help went unheeded for so long. But they're also troubled that Schmidt, 52, could face a long prison sentence—10 years to life—for what they consider a desire to help the sick. The punishment, they say, doesn't fit what should have been simply a residential zoning violation.
"Here in California," concluded Jayne Garrison, a neighbor, "we're living in a legal twilight zone when it comes to medical marijuana."
The latest clash on Martin Lane is only one of many messy conflicts to erupt since 1996 when California voters approved Proposition 215, the landmark initiative that made medical use of marijuana legal under state law but set up a testy conflict with the federal government's unwavering prohibitions on pot.
The fight has centered on the more than 50 nonprofit cannabis dispensaries that have sprung up in California since the initiative passed. Though it allows patients or caregivers with a physician's recommendation to grow pot for their own use, dispensaries were fashioned as sources for shut-ins or those too ill to cultivate the plant they had permission to use. Growers like Schmidt supplied such dispensaries.
Over the last year, the rift between the state and the U.S. has only widened. In May 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that federal law doesn't allow a medical exception for marijuana use. Although eight other states allow medical use of pot, California has remained the top target. Federal drug officials say growers in the Golden State are simply more visible—thus easier to arrest—and apt to bring raids to the attention of the news media.
As more growers have been busted, advocates for the medical use of pot have increasingly voiced outrage, in particular over a Sept. 5 raid that shut down a collective in Santa Cruz; activists countered by defiantly distributing marijuana in front of City Hall last week.
The conflict flared again Monday, as police arrested about 30 demonstrators blocking a federal courthouse in Sacramento to protest the conviction of the leader of a Chico dispensary of marijuana for medical use. Federal drug agents also are targeting small operations once considered not worth the bother. On Tuesday, drug enforcement agents uprooted a San Diego activist's 26-plant pot garden.
"It's a very controversial issue, this so-called medical marijuana," said Richard Meyer, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman in San Francisco. "But we get lots of calls from communities thanking us."
Residents on Sebastopol's Martin Lane didn't know what to make of Schmidt when he swept into the neighborhood last spring, renting a farmhouse atop six acres at the end of the road. Schmidt, now being held in a Bay Area jail, could not be reached for comment, and his attorney, Alexandra McClure, declined to discuss the case.
With his beard and gray ponytail, Schmidt seemed a cross between Willie Nelson and Col. Sanders, neighbors said. He rode horses, fancied western garb and sometimes clomped around in a black duster. Schmidt was friendly, they say, with a dash of bravado. Among advocates for medicinal use of marijuana, Schmidt styled himself the "cannabis cowboy." He told folks on the lane his crop would consist of sunflowers and corn. But he also referred them to a Web site for "Genesis 1:29," the marijuana operation Schmidt established shortly after California became the first of nine states in the U.S. to legalize medical use of marijuana.
For its first years, Genesis sat shoehorned in a Petaluma subdivision, 20 miles down the freeway. But in 1999, armed robbers burst in and stole 50 plants at gunpoint.
His neighbors griped, and Schmidt moved Genesis 1:29 (named for a Bible verse about God inviting man to use all of Earth's seed-bearing plants as food) to a business park. Eventually he found the farm on Martin Lane.
Residents of the 11 ranchettes fronting the lane weren't exactly shocked to learn from his Web site that Schmidt considered himself a purveyor of medical marijuana. Like many folks in Sonoma County, where more than 70% of the electorate backed Proposition 215, no one on Martin Lane is philosophically opposed to medical use of marijuana. They figured Schmidt would plant a few seeds and be done with it. Summer came, and there was no sign of sunflowers or corn. Instead, cannabis grew.
As the crop came in, the protection arrived—barbed-wire fences, patrols and guard dogs. Infrared scopes and videotape equipment were deployed, neighbors say.
"The whole thing had an air of absurdity to it," said next-door neighbor Mary Roth. "Until we got scared."
Some of the guards had crossbows. A few neighbors had scary confrontations with the dogs. A silhouette paper cutout of a human figure was pinned on hay bales. Schmidt's crew left it up for target practice. "It was plainly meant to intimidate," said Roth's husband, Ted.
Janine Carpenter, who lives directly across the narrow street, said she hadn't slept well most of the summer: Any bump in the night had her up, fearing a threat. She kept her children, ages 5 and 8, from playing out front. The Roths insisted their visiting grandchildren stay inside.
Neighbors started calling the sheriff's narcotics division, but were told nothing could be done. "They said they knew about Robert, but their hands were tied," said Fran Begun, 77.
The Sonoma County sheriff's narcotics task force did not return calls for comment. But other county officials say their reluctance to intercede springs in large part from a 2001 court case on the medical use of marijuana. Two proponents accused of growing 899 pot plants for a San Francisco dispensary were acquitted after contending they were caregivers for patients.
Schmidt, likewise, told neighbors that his marijuana was justified under Proposition 215. Though county regulations set a limit of 99 plants per patient, Schmidt told neighbors he had more than 1,000 letters from sick people needing his pot as medicine.
Such arguments are considered pointless by federal drug agents. Under U.S. law, the possession, use or cultivation of marijuana for any purpose is a felony. Unfettered by state law, the DEA had been conducting surveillance on Schmidt for more than a year, neighbors later learned At dawn on a cloudless late-summer day, agents stormed in with guns and chainsaws. Schmidt was handcuffed in a lawn chair, left to bellow: "This is all legal, you know!" By the end of the day, the pot crop he had nurtured for months had been hauled away.
Neighbors were elated to see it disappear. But Schmidt's crew was irate. None had been arrested, so they lingered for days afterward, trying to clean up the mess.
"It's something that doesn't make sense," said farmhand Jeremy Mayfield. "The DEA is supposed to be fighting the war on drugs. Instead they're putting 1,200 patients on the street to look for drugs on the black market."
A lanky man with flames tattooed on his arms, Mayfield understands the concerns of neighbors. But workers at the Genesis pot farm simply wanted to keep the "medicine" safe for needy patients, he said. They didn't mean to scare anyone except potential thieves.
Inside the house, a message from Schmidt is still scrawled on a board: "Safety first; friendly fire is not friendly; good neighborhood relations." If intruders approach, guards were told, call 911 and alert the sheriff.
Outside, a graveyard of plant roots litters the property. Drug agents punched holes in water tanks, Mayfield said, and cut electrical lines. Mayfield said Schmidt fashioned Genesis 1:29 as his redemption, his payback to society. In the early 1980s, federal officials say, Schmidt was busted for pot smuggling and spent several years in prison. The goal of Genesis, Mayfield said, was to free people who couldn't cultivate—the old, the infirm, those stuck in cramped apartments—of the black market's dangers.
Though drug agents put the value of the Genesis crop at more than $1 million, Schmidt told medical marijuana activists he planned to sell it for far less. Top grade pot goes for about $4,800 a pound on the street, but Schmidt's marijuana was expected to sell for $2,000 a pound, said Lynette Shaw, founder of the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana. "This," she said, "was a devastating loss for patients in the North Bay Area."
But the neighbors on Martin Lane say all the risk was being dumped on them.
What's needed now, the neighbors reason, is for government to sort out the conflict between state and federal law. That won't come quickly, they realize, so they have united behind a push for change in local law. Last week, they dispatched a letter to Sonoma County supervisors asking that zoning rules be altered to put residential areas off limits to medicinal marijuana farms.
"We want it regulated, zoned," Begun said. Mike Mullins, Sonoma County district attorney, said the folks on Martin Lane "had every right to be afraid." But zoning restrictions would merely shift the problem to rural areas, he added. The solution must be faced head on: Either legalize medical use of marijuana across America or end what in California has become "an absurd situation."
Supervisor Mike Reilly, a Proposition 215 supporter, admits he's unsure how land-use rules apply to a crop that is "quasi-legal to begin with." Reilly hopes the medical marijuana community will learn to avoid farming in residential areas.
On Martin Lane, the old peace has returned. Schmidt is in federal custody. His pot farm is dismantled. But some neighbors remain ill at ease—about being cast as villains by medical marijuana boosters, about retribution. And about the fate of Robert Schmidt.