Authorities continued their assault on the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries Thursday with the arrests of 12 people, including outspoken activist and convicted felon Pierre Werner, associated with the storefront businesses.
The arrests followed the September raids of several Las Vegas dispensaries, including Dr. Reefer, a business operated by Werner’s mother and brother at 8975 S. Pecos Road.
"There seems to be a pretty clear political agenda right now with the dispensaries as a whole," said Werner’s attorney, Conrad Claus.
Federal prosecutors filed criminal complaints three weeks ago against 15 defendants, but the charges were sealed until Thursday. Among those arrested in Las Vegas were Werner, 39; his mother, Reynalda Barnett, 59; and his brother, Clyde Barnett, 21.
Werner and the Barnetts are charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Reynalda and Clyde Barnett also are charged with distribution of marijuana. Werner and Reynalda Barnett face additional charges of possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and concealing or failing to disclose information affecting Social Security benefits.
Two other defendants face a charge of possession with intent to distribute marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school.
Businesses named in the complaints include Dr. Reefer, The Happiness Consultant (THC), the Nevada Compassionate Center, LV Fingerprinting, and Organic Releaf.
All of the charges involve violations of federal law, but Daniel Bogden, the U.S. attorney for Nevada, stressed state law in a statement.
"Nothing in the Nevada Medical Marijuana Act permits the establishment of such commercial enterprises in Nevada," Bogden said. "Yet, drug intelligence information indicates there are currently 45 to 60 of these marijuana trafficking enterprises operating unlawfully in the Las Vegas Valley alone."
Bogden noted it is illegal to sell even medical marijuana in Nevada; patients and or caregivers must grow their own. State health officials said 2,899 people in Nevada had medical marijuana permits on Dec. 1.
Claus said Nevada’s medical marijuana law is unconstitutional because "it’s impossible to legally comply with." He suspects local law enforcement and local politics prompted federal action in Nevada. In other states with legalized medical marijuana, such as California, federal authorities have taken a "hands-off policy," he said.
The complaint against Werner and four other defendants, including his mother and brother, was prepared by David Behar, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent. He wrote that for-profit dispensaries are being set up in Nevada with increasing frequency.
"Often, purported ‘medical marijuana’ establishments will attempt to create a cloak of legitimacy through advertisements including large billboards and Internet postings which encourage potential customers to ‘get legal’ in their consumption of marijuana. …" Behar wrote. "Dispensaries that merely require patients to complete a form summarily designating the business and/or owner as their primary caregiver and then offering marijuana in exchange for cash ‘donations’ are unlawful."
Authorities arrested 11 defendants in Las Vegas and one in Los Angeles. They are expected to appear today before a federal judge in Las Vegas.
Claus said Thursday he had not read the complaint or discussed the charges with Werner, who remained in custody.
"I’m pretty confident that the judge will let him out, given the nature of the charges," he said.
Clark County suspended Dr. Reefer’s business license in November. Officials would not disclose details about their decision because of ongoing state and federal investigations.
Werner already has served two stints in prison for possession of marijuana with the intent to sell. When he finished his second sentence in 2008, he launched a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado, where it is legal to sell the drug to patients with chronic ailments.
But eight months later, Colorado passed a law forbidding convicted felons from owning a dispensary, Werner said.
He returned to Las Vegas to help run Dr. Reefer. In November, he said he planned to move to Arizona, which recently legalized dispensaries.
"This is a subject that’s near and dear to his heart," Claus said.
The lawyer said he understood that Werner participated in Dr. Reefer as a "supportive family member" and was not involved in its day-to-day operations.
"He may have very well just been caught up in this because he’s been very vocal on the subject," the lawyer said.
According to the criminal complaint, an undercover detective went to Dr. Reefer on Aug. 5 and was greeted by Clyde Barnett and Werner. Werner told the detective that he was taking over the business from his mother.
Werner is also accused of receiving about $21,000 in Social Security disability benefits, to which he was not entitled, between June 2004 and February 2007. His mother also received another $6,000 on his behalf between February 2009 and April.
Reynalda Barnett is accused of possessing, with the intent to distribute, both marijuana and hashish in September.
Thursday’s arrests stemmed from Operation Chronic Problem, a joint investigation conducted by the DEA, Las Vegas police, North Las Vegas police, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, the office of the inspector general for the Social Security Administration, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.