Feds to give back $14,383 seized in pot dispensary case

San Marcos may have succeeded in shutting down a medical marijuana collective, but federal authorities agreed last week to give back nearly half of the $29,350 in cash seized from the man who has been the public face of the controversial dispensary operation, federal court records show. The decision to return $14,383 —- about 49 percent of the money —- was part of a settlement that stems from a December incident in which the man behind the collective, Ron Chang, was stopped by federal agents while hauling marijuana on Pala Road.

Authorities say smugglers use the well-traveled back road to avoid the border checkpoint near Temecula on Interstate 15. The December encounter may help explain how Chang, who came under fire from city officials in San Marcos for setting up a medical marijuana dispensary, came to the attention of federal authorities. Chang’s attempts to set up a dispensary caused a stir in San Marcos, which enacted rules preventing any such operations from setting up shop in the city of nearly 84,000 residents.

His first dispensary, Medical Marijuana Supply Collective, was shut down by order of a Vista-based judge in October. A second shop, Club One Collective, set up in the same location, was ordered to close in April by the same Vista judge. In each matter, the city sued in state court to shut down the dispensaries. Last week, Club One’s attorney Nathan Shaman said the property had been surrendered to the landlord and that there are no plans to reopen the dispensaries.

“For all intents and purposes, Club One has ceased to function,” said Shaman, who represented the dispensary in the cases brought by San Marcos. He also represented the dispensary in the federal battle over the seized cash. California voters in 1996 legalized the use of medical marijuana, although gray areas in the law leave patients and law enforcement at odds. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Smith represented the federal government in the case of the seized cash. He said the government gave back more of the cash that it typically does in seizure cases. “I reviewed it and looked at the events and the quality of the evidence and decided that this was the best thing to do,” Smith said. He said the disparity between state and federal laws regarding medical marijuana can create “a real conundrum.” In April, Club One and some of the medical marijuana patients it served from Oceanside to Temecula found themselves the subject of raids. Federal authorities seized computers, corporate records and documents, Shaman said.

The April raids came four months after Chang’s run-in with federal agents. Details of the December encounter are laid out in a federal complaint seeking to permanently seize the money found in the truck. That complaint —- filed April 15, two weeks before the raids —- states that on Dec. 21, a U.S. Border Patrol agent pulled Chang over as he drove a truck north on Pala Road.

About 9:40 a.m. that day, a veteran Border Patrol agent in a marked car spotted a man in a red sweatshirt, with the hood pulled up, driving a rented box-truck with Indiana license plates. The agent saw the truck driver shift to look into his rear-view mirror at the marked Border Patrol car. That, according to court documents, prompted the agent to follow the truck as it headed north on Pala Road into Temecula. Once the truck merged onto Interstate 15 —- having avoided the checkpoint —- the agent flipped on his lights and siren and pulled the truck over.

Chang was the driver, and authorities said he was headed to drop off items at his warehouse business in Murrieta. Authorities said Chang consented to a search of the truck that turned up $29,350 cash in a blue duffel bag, 1.22 pounds of high-grade marijuana, and equipment associated with growing the plant.

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