War on drugs rages on - Page 2

Dispensary owners face harsh federal gun charges for heeding a local sheriff's request to hire security guards

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Winslow and Abraham Norton, founders of Compassionate Patients' Cooperative of California, whose family has faced threats
PHOTO BY PAMELA A. MACLEAN

"While I don't favor their type of business, it was legal. I wanted to make damn sure they were protected, people were protected, and the building was protected. I told them to hire a security crew," he said.

Abraham says Plummer assured them during a county Board of Supervisors meeting that if they did everything he required, the feds would leave them alone. "I could have said that," Plummer said when asked about that assurance.

Although the new charge is "aiding" use of weapons, the security crew was not charged with a crime. It had no effect on the guards or the company, according to Tom Turner, one of SEAL-Mar's owners.

The indictment of their father, Michael, was no accident. Michael is a patient of the dispensary, but the brothers and his lawyer, Bill Osterhoudt, say Michael had no ownership interest in the co-op.

What Michael Norton does have is a criminal record. In the 1980s, he went to prison for two years in what was known as the Kona coffee caper. He bought low-cost Guatemalan coffee beans and sold them as pricey Hawaiian Kona coffee.

Piled on to the Norton brothers' legal problems is a tax bill that went unpaid when the federal agents raided their apartment and the business. When the federal agents swept in three years ago, they seized the brothers' two cars, a house they just bought, more than 300 pounds of marijuana, and an electronic deposit of nearly $340,000 in sales tax sent to the state Board of Equalization, according to Winslow.

"We thought the wire transfer cleared. We had confirmation, but the government still seized it," Abraham said. "They stole the money," Winslow said. That debt, with penalties and interest, is now close to $1 million, according to Abraham.

"The feds snatched the sales tax money and left the Nortons liable for it, and now they have liens against them for the money," Rosenthal said.

The irony for the brothers is that they believe they were the first dispensary to voluntarily pay sales taxes. "We collected them for six months and took a check for $1 million to the BOE," Abraham said. "They didn't want to take money from medical marijuana sales and told us to call it something else," Winslow said. "We refused. They wanted us to lie and say the bags cost $300 and the contents were free. But that would have screwed up our accounting."

After accepting the initial payment, within a week the board issued letters to all the dispensaries in the state asking for sales tax, according to the brothers.

Judge Jensen rejected defense efforts to get the gun charges thrown out in September. But Jensen, a Republican former prosecutor, signaled he is not happy and ordered both sides to sit down Dec. 9 for formal talks before a magistrate to see if they can resolve the case.

"It's not enough to say we want the case dropped," Abraham said. "Our credit is destroyed. We can't work."

"Three years later we are still fighting it," Winslow said. "We've been fighting this almost as long as the dispensary existed."

As for the brothers' chances to negotiate a resolution with the feds, Rosenthal said, "I'm somehow hoping the clouds are going to part and sanity is going to set in."