Like most of the 80-odd marijuana dispensaries that have taken root in San Jose in the past year, the New Age Healing Collective advertises a lengthy menu of high-grade pot, pot concentrates and pot-infused treats for its ill patients.
But narcotics agents say the cannabis club on South Bascom Avenue was an illegal pot-slinging operation masquerading behind its medicinal mission and strip-mall storefront. Earlier this week, the Mercury News has learned, a regional drug task force with a search warrant raided the operation, seized about 40 pounds of marijuana and effectively shut the place down.
Drug enforcement officials acknowledged the raid was the first of its kind in the area.
"He wasn't providing care or benefits to patients," said Bob Cooke, who leads the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement in the South Bay, of the head of the pot collective. "We believe he is nothing more than a glorified pot dealer."
Cooke did not identify the suspect, whose homes in Livermore also were searched, but the Mercury News has learned his name is Jonathan Joel Mitchell, 30. Mitchell, who has not been charged, could not be reached for comment. The Santa Clara County District Attorney is reviewing the case.
Geoff Rawlings, Mitchell's lawyer, said he was concerned that the narcotics agents were targeting his client by misinterpreting the murky web of state law, guidelines and case precedents that dictate how medicinal marijuana should be distributed.
Rawlings said: "There is a fundamental disconnect between what they understand the law to be and what the law is."
Similar raids have gone on in other parts of California, but this is the second unprecedented law enforcement action within a week against alleged illegality within the burgeoning, local medicinal marijuana movement.
On Oct. 1, the same South Bay narcotics agents ran a sting operation dubbed "Up in Smoke" against advertised medical marijuana delivery services, arresting almost two dozen suspects they say were "perverting the law." That sting was widely publicized.
But Thursday's low-key raid was the first time that South Bay law enforcement has targeted a marijuana dispensary, despite a fair amount of public safety skepticism that some of the dispensary operators' supposedly altruistic missions are nothing more than selling marijuana to any adult who wants it.
Worried about raids
Less than a month from a statewide vote on legalizing recreational pot use for adults, the raid sent a shudder through medicinal marijuana movement leaders here who insist they operate fully within the law. They expressed concern that the sting and the raid herald an aggressive and unfair new tactic by law enforcement.
"This is what lawyers warned me about when I opened the collective," said Dave Hodges, who founded the San Jose Cannabis Buyers Collective, one of the city's first dispensaries. "What's happening is an organized group of people trying to misinterpret Prop. 215, to say the activities we are doing are illegal. It's simply not the case."
Cooke said the raid was preceded by compliance checks. Undercover agents from the Santa Clara County Special Enforcement Team were sent into the Bascom Avenue collective over the course of about a month, where, authorities say, they purchased marijuana without having proper documentation that they were medicinal marijuana patients. In some cases, Cooke said, an agent who did have documentation was told by dispensary employees that they should buy marijuana to give to someone without documentation.
Under the law created through Proposition 215, residents are allowed to buy marijuana if it has been "recommended" by a licensed physician. Most clinics require patients to join their collectives or cooperatives by providing documentation of such a recommendation.
"We urge everyone to closely comply with the law," Cooke said. "If you are in the business to make money, you are a dope dealer."
On Saturday, the targeted dispensary -- which is located in a strip mall next to the local headquarters of the FBI -- was closed, all dark behind its front window decorated with a painting of turbaned figures on flying carpets above a desert and a sticker from the California Narcotics Agents Association.
Nearby, a young man in sunglasses and a Sharks cap sidled up to a reporter to say that the dispensary was now closed.
"But," he suggested. "I can get you what you need."