SAN FRANCISCO – In the latest tussle between local and federal officials over medical marijuana, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency was jeered by city leaders hours after his agents raided a club that provides pot to sick people.
DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson was denounced Tuesday while delivering a speech at the Commonwealth Club of California. Audience members shouted "Liar!" when he said "science has told us so far there is no medical benefit for smoking marijuana."
Demonstrators outside blew kazoos and chanted "Go away D-E-A" while the smell of marijuana wafted through the air.
Earlier, federal agents seized more than 600 pot plants from the Harm Reduction Center and arrested the group's executive director. Three other men also were arrested.
The raid coincided with President Bush's announcement of a stepped-up war on drugs, with a goal of cutting drug abuse by 25 percent in five years, in part through improved law enforcement.
California, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Maine, Oregon and Washington state allow the infirm to receive, possess, grow or smoke marijuana for medical purposes without fear of state prosecution.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court said last year it is illegal to distribute marijuana for medical reasons.
During the raid, the Harm Reduction Center's executive director, Richard Watts, was arrested and two other men were charged with growing more than 100 pot plants. In a separate case, a fourth man was charged with growing more than 1,000 marijuana plants.
"They all are connected with marijuana smuggling," DEA spokesman Richard Meyer said. "We've said all along the cultivation and distribution of marijuana is illegal regardless of state or local law."
The center serves about 200 patients a day, all with doctors' recommendations to get the drug. Many suffer chronic pain from AIDS and cancer, said David Witty, the marijuana club's chief of security.
San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan has been outspoken in his support of such clubs, and Police Chief Fred Lau has said his officers wouldn't take part in any raids. City leaders declared San Francisco a sanctuary for medical cannabis use last year.
"This is a decision to be made by the voters of California and the people of the city and county of San Francisco," Hallinan said through a bullhorn outside the building where Hutchinson spoke.
Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano went one step further, calling the DEA an "obnoxious, grandstanding" agency. "I don't want somebody in my house that's not invited!" Ammiano shouted.
In his speech, Hutchinson said "science has told us so far there is no medical benefit for smoking marijuana." He also defended the arrests, saying "We have to enforce the law."
Tuesday's raid is just one in a series of recent federal crackdowns in California. Agents shut down a West Hollywood cannabis club in October. Other federal actions include raiding a Ventura County garden operated by patients, and seizure of medical records from a Northern California doctor who is a prominent medical marijuana proponent.