Years after legalization, the state’s growers say police are taking a “seize first, ask questions later” mentality toward marijuana enforcement, sometimes with heavily militarized operations that allegedly violate their rights.
Zeke Flatten was driving southbound on Highway 101 in Northern California in December 2017 when he was pulled over by an unmarked SUV with flashing emergency lights.
Two officers clad in green, military-style garb and bulletproof vests approached Flatten’s vehicle but didn’t identify themselves. After asking Flatten if he knew how fast he was going, one of the men told him they suspected he was transporting cannabis, according to court documents. Flatten was immediately suspicious.
“He never mentioned anything else about the reason, probable cause, why he stopped me,” Flatten said in an interview with The Appeal.
The officers were correct, however: Flatten, a film producer and former undercover cop who’d temporarily relocated to Northern California, had three pounds of marijuana, including a few rolled joints, in the car—worth over $3,000 at the time. Flatten says he was working on a number of cannabis-related projects and was driving to a lab to test the weed, which he’d hoped to sell legally.
Just over a year before the stop, California had voted to legalize the personal cultivation and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana with the passage of Proposition 64. Under the measure, possession of larger amounts of cannabis was reduced from a felony offense to a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months of incarceration and a maximum $500 fine.
But marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, classified as a Schedule 1 substance alongside drugs like heroin, LSD, and MDMA, known as Ecstasy. When the officers identified themselves as members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a federal agency, Flatten said he started to realize something was off.
“There’s no patches, there’s no badges, there’s no name tags,” Flatten said.
Flatten says he offered to show the officers his medical marijuana card, which should have allowed him to have the cannabis. But they didn’t want to look at the card. He figured if the agents believed the marijuana was illegal, they’d take it and provide him a receipt for the seizure, which would give him a chance to argue his case in court, Flatten said.
Instead, they proceeded to confiscate the cannabis from the back of Flatten’s car without running his name for warrants, or issuing a traffic ticket, court summons, or even documentation of the seizure, Flatten said. The officers did tell him that he might be getting a letter from the federal government. But he never did.
Flatten said he felt like he’d been robbed. He started looking for a lawyer, and a few days later, went to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department to report the incident. The next week, after returning to his home state of Texas, he made an official report at the FBI field office in San Antonio.
He would soon find out that the officers who seized his marijuana weren’t actually ATF agents. Flatten alleges one was a member of the sheriff’s department. The other was from the Rohnert Park Police Department, and has since been indicted on federal charges including extortion and conspiracy in connection with cannabis seizures.