Tempe police crack down on marijuana 'compassion clubs'
By Jim Walsh The Republic | azcentral.com Tue Jan 29, 2013 1:41 PM
Tempe police targeted the operator of two “compassion clubs’’ Tuesday, arrested him, serving a series of search warrants and seizing a garage full of mature marijuana plants.
The months-long undercover investigation started before an employee of Top Shelf Medicine, formerly known as the AzGoGreen Co-op, was shot and critically injured on Oct. 25.
The employee survived the shooting, but police also served a search warrant a few days later and seized marijuana, Tempe police Commander Noah Johnson said.
Because the clubs have money and cash, police are investigating whether the motive was robbery, he said.
Compassion clubs opened in Valley strip malls and office parks when medical marijuana advocates became frustrated by the long delay between the state Medical Marijuana Act passing in 2010 and dispensaries opening.
Arizona has more than 35,000 residents with medical marijuana cards, but only six dispensaries where card-holders can legally obtain the weed. The only Valley dispensary is in Glendale.
While the dispensaries are tightly regulated, the compassion clubs are not regulated in any manner, although they generally require members to have state-issued medical marijuana cards to obtain marijuana.
Before the shooting, the club had been investigated by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, but it continued to operate after a grand jury decided not to indict the operator, Johnson said.
“What I hope is that people will get the message that operating in this manner is illegal,’’ Johnson said.
He said the Arizona Medical Marijuana law allows people to grow a limited amount of marijuana and to share it, but they cannot exchange anything of value for marijuana.
Sgt. Mike Pooley, a police spokesman, said the investigation started when other business owners in a strip mall near Southern and Mill avenues complained about traffic, customers smoking marijuana in the parking lot and the smell of marijuana.
On Tuesday, a strong odor of marijuana filled the crisp, early morning air at a rental house in north Tempe, just east of Papago Park, where police found an estimated 50 to 60 mature marijuana plants that were more than five feet tall.
Pooley said the hydroponic grow involved high-grade marijuana, in high demand. He said each plant was capable of generating five to 10 pounds of marijuana, selling at $2,000 to $3,000 a pound.
Police seized plants from two houses across the street from each other, valued at several hundreds of thousands of dollars, Pooley said. Police SWAT team members wearing ski masks cut down the plants with saws and loaded the leaves in large plastic bags.
The suspected operator of two compassion clubs was arrested in an Ahwatukee neighborhood near Desert Vista High School where residents said they shocked by the early-morning raids.
Top Shelf Hydro College, which police identified as a compassion club, had a yellow and green banner hanging from its roof in a warehouse building near McClintock Drive and Curry Road. It also was raided by SWAT team members who broke down a door to enter.
No one was inside the grow houses near Papago Park or the compassion club on McClintock Drive. In all, six search warrants were served, three at houses and three at businesses.
Clubs have been raided and shutdown in unrelated cases in the past in Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert and Phoenix. Two cases have been prosecuted, with defendants placed on probation but hit with stiff fines.
Club operators interviewed by The Republic prior to Tuesday’s arrests argued they are doing nothing illegal.
They said the Arizona medical marijuana law allows for “patient-to-patient transfers’’ of marijuana, and that card-holders are sharing the marijuana with each other.
The operators said smoking marijuana helps cancer patients combat nausea from chemotherapy and a wide range of other ailments.
“I’ve seen herbs work in miraculous things,’’ said Craig Scherf, a former compassion club operator in Tempe and Mesa who lost everything after he was arrested.
He said his patients often had cancer and other life-threatening diseases and that marijuana helped them get off addictive painkillers.
But police contend the clubs are illegal, whether they charge a membership fee or if the patient makes a “donation’’ based upon the strain and quality of the marijuana.
Johnson said there are many compassion clubs located throughout the Valley but it is difficult to tell how many are operating.
Tempe Center for the Arts
Tempe Cesspool for the Arts