Northstone Organics, a medical marijuana cooperative based in Mendocino County, appears to be about as legitimate as such an organization can be.
It has a Mendocino County Sheriff's permit to grow medical marijuana as a cooperative, undergoes county inspections and its plants are tagged with Sheriff's Office zip ties, a measure aimed at protecting them from being seized by law enforcement.
"If what Northstone Organics is doing isn't legal, no collective or cooperative is legal," said Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen, who spearheaded the county's medical marijuana permit program.
But the legal precautions, which cost the cooperative about $8,500 a year, could not guarantee safe passage of marijuana through Sonoma County.
Daniel Harwood, 33, of Willits, and Timothy Tangney, 29, of Lucerne, were twice stopped by Sonoma County Sheriff's deputies in October while driving through Sonoma County on their way to deliver medicinal pot to co-op members in the Bay Area. Both are members of the cooperative.
The two, who were stopped on consecutive days, were told they were pulled over for traffic violations: speeding in one case and not using a turn signal in the second instance. Deputies said the smell of pot led them to search the vehicles, confiscate the marijuana and issue citations to the alleged offenders.
Oakland attorney Bill Panzer, who is reprenting the two drivers, said something else is at play.
"They've been profiling young people driving in rental cars," he said of sheriff's deputies.
Sonoma County Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Duenas denied the profiling allegation.
"Absolutely not," he said.
Harwood and Tangney each are facing two felony counts of transportation of marijuana for sale and possession with intent to sell.
They were carrying about 2.3 pounds of marijuana packaged mostly in one-ounce bags, each labeled with the names of 35 patients for whom they were destined. The labels included price tags of approximately $275 each, said Matt Cohen, the founder and chief executive officer of the 1,400-member cooperative.
Everything they were doing was legal, Panzer said.
But not everyone interprets medical marijuana law the same way.
"It's extremely fuzzy," said McCowen, the county supervisor.
"I would love for direction to be given to us from either the courts or state Legislature that gives us consistent guidelines for transportation," said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.
Issues surrounding medical marijuana transportation, financial compensation and dispensaries remain muddy 15 years after voters legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, he said.
Panzer said it's clear enough to know that charges against his client should be dropped.
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch declined to discuss the case but said her office respects the rights of legitimate medical marijuana patients.
"I support safe access to medical marijuana," she said.
She also said that prosecuting marijuana cases that don't involve violence is a low priority for her office.
Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster said he doesn't have enough information to comment specifically on the Northstone case. But transporting marijuana to cooperative members is permitted under state Attorney General medical marijuana guidelines, he said.
"Even assuming simply for the sake of argument that the guidelines are wrong, I personally believe it is bad policy to prosecute people who may have relied on the written policy guidelines of the California Attorney General," he said.