Dustin Costa, leader of the Merced Patients Group, was arrested at his residence on Wednesday, Aug. 10. He is being held at a federal detention facility in Fresno. According to Tom O’Connell, MD, federal prosecutors are taking control (from the Stanislaus County district attorney) of a case based on the seizure in February 2004 of some 900 plants from Costa’s greenouse. In a federal trial the jury will not be allowed to weigh Costa’s claim that the plants were all destined for medical-mariuana users and dispensaries.
Costa is a Vietnam-era Marine Corps vet who has experience as a union organizer. Instead of retreating after getting busted, he devoted himself to building the Merced Patients Group. It’s a co-operative for which attorney Bill McPike wrote the by-laws in conformance with state law (created by Prop 215 and SB-420) and precedent cases. McPike advised that the patients group could assign (hire) members to grow marijuana for those who were unable to do so for themselves. “DC was very confident that they were establishing a legal model that would be applicable throughout the state,” says O’Connell. “His group was really picking up momentum.”
Willingness to do political work is one of the explicit conditions for membership in Costa’s group. Last month he led eight MPG members to the office of Congressman Dennis Cardoza to protest his “no” vote on an amendment that would have stopped the DEA from raiding growers and distributors in states with medical-marijuana laws. Cardoza was the only California Democrat to oppose the measure. Costa and crew arrived at his office dressed in black t-shirts emblazoned front and back with a bright marijuana leaf and blunt slogans: “Safer than aspirin” on one side, “More effective than Ritalian” on the other.
MPG members also had gone in their distinctive attire to public hearings in Modesto and Stockton (where their input helped block extension of the local moratorium on cannabis dispensaries). They attended court proceedings in San Joaquin County for Aaron Paradiso, a quadriplegic facing cultivation charges. They launched a graffiti abatement project that was written up favorably in the Merced Sun-Star. The group was there en masse when Costa appeared in Superior Court in Merced and got a continuance of his trial till October -over objections from the D.A. Ebullient after this small victory, Costa’s friends distributed t-shirts to courthouse employees. Was it this pattern of activism that led to the re-arrest on a federal warrant?
A third-hand account of the August 10 bust: “Six or seven officers came with guns drawn -Winton police, CHP, sheriff’s deputies. No feds, although they had a federal arrest warrant. They handcuffed Dustin but were relatively pleasant. When they started to search the apartment Dustin asked them to see a warrant and that seemed to throw them into disarray. They tried to call the DEA. After an hour they left, saying that they weren’t going to conduct a search at that time.”
The looming question is: at whose initiative did the feds take over the prosecution? Most of the explanations are ominous (and not mutually exclusive). Congressman Cardoza could have expressed his displeasure with Costa. A sheriff who had it in for Costa might have asked a federal colleague, as a personal favor, to take him down. The Stanislaus County D.A. could have asked them, knowing that Costa was going to mount a vigorous medical marijuana defense in Superior Court (and the Central Valley media). Or the feds on their own could have moved against Costa after identifying Costa as the leader of a political movement they are determined to stamp out. DEA Administrator Karen Tandy issued a revealing statement July 29 on the arrest of Canadian seed salesman Marc Emery. “Today’s arrest of Mark (sic) Scott Emery, publisher of Cannabis Culture magazine and the founder of a marijuana legalization group, is a significant blow not only to the marijuana trafficking trade in the U.S. and Canada, but also to the marijuana legalization movement. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of Emery’s illicit profits are known to have been channeled to marijuana legalization groups active in the United States and Canada. Drug legalization lobbyists now have one less pot of money to rely on.”
If the DEA is applying political criteria in deciding who to take down in California, Costa would have been a prime candidate. He was the leading activist in the Southern Division of the Eastern District. “He was our ace and he was trumped,” says O’Connell. Undoubtedly the DEA and federal prosecutors will claim that they had no ulterior motives and that Costa is being prosecuted based on the number of plants he had under cultivation.
Size Matters Under New Oregon Law
The Oregon legislature has passed a bill that, when signed into law by the Governor, will change the rules under which medical marijuana is grown and possessed. It increases to 24 ounces (from three) the amount of cannabis a patient can possess. It increases the number of plants allowable per patient from seven (four “immature,” three “mature”) to 24, (18 smaller than one foot, six larger). The new law allows an unlicensed caregiver to grow cannabis for up to four documented medical users, and a licensed caregiver to grow for an unlimited number of users. The measure passed the state senate unanimously in July and was approved last week by the House. State Senator Bill Morissette, a liberal Democrat from Eugene, was the prime mover amongst the pols and Madeline Martinez of Oregon NORML helped mobilize the masses. Portland defense specialist Lee Berger opposed the measure -and law enforcement gave its support- because it takes away the affirmative “medical-use” defense away from anyone charged with cultivating or possessing marijuana in quantities over the legal limits. Those growing or possessing marijuana in allowable quantities will be able to claim “medical use” in court even if they don’t have the proper paperwork. “Law enforcement wanted a hard-and-fast number,” says a source in Salem.
FRED GARDNER can be reached at: email@example.com