Journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical
The "Professional Bust" of
By Fred Gardner
FRED DEMCHUK a few days after his grow-op was raided by
It was one of those stories that makes a big splash in the local media
and then disappears. A warehouse in Hunters Point had been raided by
the DEA in late March, a “sophisticated marijuana cultivation
site” dismantled, more than 400 plants seized.
There was no follow-up story because nobody ever got charged. The man
who had leased the warehouse and was indeed growing marijuana there,
Fred Demchuk, showed me around the denuded interior about a week after
the bust and described what had gone down.
I’d first met Fred in ’96 at Prop 215 campaign headquarters
(the original San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club run by Dennis Peron
and crew). We both used to come by around 5 p.m. on Fridays to hear
Mike Mack play the piano and enjoy the end-of-the-work-week vibes.
Fred was from Detroit, originally, a semi-retired engineer with a blue-collar
air. He’d said that his parents had made it out of the Ukraine,
where his father had been “a slave to a machine,” in
In recent years Fred and Mike were involved in a patients’ union
whose members are mostly low-income folks. After Dennis Peron had
been driven out of business, a group that included Mike, Leslie
Harvey Feldman had given thought to launching a medical cannabis
dispensary of their own, but lacked the necessary capital. Their
Plan B was to
rely on competent volunteers to grow or otherwise obtain cannabis
for union members at the lowest possible price.
Fred leased the small warehouse in April 2001. He cleaned and painted,
then hired an experienced indoor grower to install lights, ballasts,
an irrigation system, etc., and to oversee production. Fred handled
security himself by moving into a small trailer outside the warehouse.
On week-ends he’d visit his wife and family in San Jose.
In due course Fred and the experienced grower had a falling out.
Allegations of theft were made, but not to the police. The grower
Fred took over the operation. He had never grown indoors (and only
once outdoors, in 1976, on a very small scale) but he’d been
looking over the grower’s shoulder, he said, and had learned
about pH and what goes into the nutrient solution.
He was doing things wrong,” Fred said in retrospect. “I
took over in the midst of a dying crop and somehow turned it around.
We’ve been able to sell everything that we grow. Everything.
Everything we grew was sticky. Even the cops, when they were taking
the stuff out, said ‘man. this stuff is really sticky.’”
You know how growers talk:
Fred was sounding like every other grower you’ve ever heard: “They
were beautiful. It broke my heart to see‘em go. Some were
ready to harvest, some were three weeks into bloom...
We used two lights per table. That was our secret of success: photosynthesis
you couldn’t believe! This whole room was up to here, almost
ready to be harvested...”
The confiscated crop was the one the Fred was counting on to
repay his loans and come out ahead for once. “We’ve never been able to make a profit
at this place,” according Fred. “It costs thirty-five hundred
a month to rent and another two thousand at least for the electricity.”
Fred expected to get one ounce per plant —a pound to a pound-and-a-half
per table. There were 12 tables. He was growing on a 90-day cycle —a month
of vegetative growth followed by two months of blooming. “We’d run
out of money at the end of the cycle,” said Fred. “It might
be a month before we could afford to buy clones again.”
The buds were dried and sold to union members for $200 per ounce at
twice-monthly meetings called “jubilees.” Fred described
the members as “basically people who can’t afford $400
at a club. I can honestly say we provided it at cost because we didn’t
make a friggin’ dime. If I had I wouldn’t be living in
a trailer and I wouldn’t have 240,000 miles on the car I’m
driving. This is a break-even operation.”
The raiders had taken lights and ballasts (34 each at $300/pair, according
to Fred, although his actual outlay had been lower because some of the gear
had been donated). Left behind were the 12 tables, each containing 25 one-gallon
pots with cleanly lopped-off stumps about four inches high. Each plant had
received water and nutrients via thin black tubing from sprinkler heads coming
off a 2-inch riser from a 1-inch PVC pipe that connected to a bigger plastic
The growing medium in the pots was rock wool. Netting strung above
the table had supported buds that, at the time of the raid, had been
forming for three
weeks. “Some people use a spring attached to a device up here to hold
the branch up,” said Fred. “Trellis works just as well... We had
a system where you could irrigate all the plants from one pump. They didn’t
take the pumps.”
Busted along with Fred was a 31-year old Navy vet disabled by severe
migraines. Fred estimated the raiding party at “twenty or more —state, county,
there must have been four or five agencies— led by four DEA agents. They
came in with guns drawn, but they didn’t put them to our heads or throw
us to the floor. They handcuffed us but they didn’t curse at us.
They were professionals. In fact, I give them an outstanding.
I’ve done enough of these operations myself in the military to know that
when you go through the door you’ve got to have absolute fire control
because somebody could pull off a stray round and hit a friendly or hit a civilian.
Two: you’ve got to have flawless intelligence going in. And number three,
execution has to be flawless as well. When you come in and take somebody down
you don’t have to shout at them, you don’t have to push them to
the ground. A gun in the face is plenty, believe me. They didn’t
even do that, they were professional enough to lower them.”
The Sword of Respect
Fred said the turning point came quickly. “They asked me if I had a weapon
on the site and I said, ‘Oh yes, I do, I have my navy officer’s
dress sword.’” From the time they saw the sword, Fred said, “the
officers treated us even less unfriendly.”
The sword had been awarded to him at Annapolis for excellence in engineering,
he said. He got it out, inspected the blade, twirled it snappily, and sheathed
Fred entered the Navy in 1956 as an enlisted man, then aspired
to become an officer. Rep. John Conyers backed him and in 1957
Because he read, spoke, and wrote Russian (as the son of Ukranian
immigrants) and already had experience in submarines, Fred says
he “got asked to
participate in some special activities,” and didn’t graduate with
the class of ’61. He retired in 1972.
All my friends and all my operations have been with submarines and SEALs,” he
says. “Matter of fact, one of my best friends, George Worthington,
is head of worldwide operations for the SEALs.”
Fred said he’d recently called Worthington seeking “help for one
of our brethren who’d got in trouble with his CO —a SEAL. But George
didn’t want me to get involved with it and I said ‘okay.’”
Fred said he knew several other admirals and politically powerful
men from his Navy days. “John McCain and Jack Poindexter were in the class of ’58,
and I got to know them by accident. Stepping on their shoes. I had to polish
McCain’s shoes for three weeks and Poindexter’s for a month. Never
thought I would ever hear from those two guys again, to be honest with you.
I’ve got Poindexter’s signature somewhere —they put me on
report and it’s his signature on the report.”
Three levels of take down
Fred resumed his favorable review of his own bust: “In a military take
down, I don’t even ask for them to open the door. I just give the order ‘Open
fire’ and we just hit this place with guns that can shoot
6,000 rounds a minute. Fuel-air grenades that when they go off
the building. And then we follow that up with some stun grenades
and thermite grenades
and make it really hot inside in case someone did survive. And
then we come in.
A paramilitary take down is one step down, without all that ordnance, but still
pushing people down when they catch ‘em and putting guns to their head.
A paramilitary bust leaves you with the feeling that you’ve just been
assaulted by storm troopers and everyone’s pissed off,
including the media.
“When it’s a professional bust, the only thing you get
pissed off about is that they took your weed. I’m pissed off
that we don’t have any medicine to provide to over 100 people.
I’m not pissed off at the DEA officers. In fact, it’s a
pleasure to watch professionals in action. They had some kind of cutters,
several boxes of tools in plastic carryalls, and investigation kits,
fingerprinting kits. They fingerprinted the place and maybe even left
audio devices and video devices behind.”
The renowned psychiatrist Jolly West testified on behalf of Patty Hearst
that people have a tendency to identify with and even admire their
oppressors, especially under conditions of extreme duress. Fred Demchuk,
having conducted raids himself in the military, would be inclined to
identify with the leader of the raid on his indoor garden.
Fred said the DEA agents “got chairs for us to sit down in. They
loosened my handcuffs when they realized I had arthritis —and
it was terrible because I couldn’t medicate. They let us go to
the bathroom. They didn’t browbeat us or attempt to shout at
us and make disparaging remarks. One of them asked me if I’d
done any intelligence work and I told him yes, I’d worked with
Admiral Worthington and so forth. He asked me my rank and I told him
that was classified. He said he’d never heard of a classified
rank and I said that under the new anti-terrorist rules you’re
not allowed to reveal it.
“They attempted to find out how much business we were doing here. They
came in with the impression that this was a big moneymaking operation. They didn’t
realize the problems we had with crops. They didn’t realize that
growing in rock wool is very demanding, you make one mistake and you lose
The cost of hydroponic nutrients is quite high. The really good ones are
and because of the trade imbalance, the cost is going up...
We had a problem with mites that almost destroyed an entire crop. I mean, at
first we just stood there and watched the little bastards at work. But we got
smart about it. Between each crop we had sufficient time here to bomb the room
but not the crop with insecticide bomb, a special cytotoxin that kills them.
You don’t see them for months. You don’t want to use it
when the plants are in bloom...
We’ve had problems and overcome them. We’ve learned so much, this
crop would have been the pinnacle of our expertise. We were finally at the
point where we’re producing a reasonable crop. I pointed out to these
officers that really what they were taking away was medicine for Iraqi war
veterans, Vietnam War veterans, and disabled people. I said, ‘you know,
you don’t realize what harm you’re doing.’
The agent in charge, we’ll call him Hughes. He pointed out that while
we legitimate patients might constitute three percent, the total market out
there was 97 percent people who were abusing it. I said, ‘Well go after
the 97 percent.’ Fred laughed at his own opportunism, said he didn’t
tell Hughes that the numbers seemed like the reverse of reality —97
percent of cannabis users have valid medical reasons.
Hughes said there was nothing under federal law that legitimized medicinal
marijuana and he advised people to use Marinol. I laughed and Eric [the other
man being detained] gave him the scientific reasons.” The DEA agents
seemed “vastly uninformed with respect to medicinal cannabis,” said
There are 11 Vietnam and Persian Gulf vets in Fred’s union. He had been
trying to organize a support group for Iraq war vets who needed more help than
the VA could provide, and said he’d been in touch with eight
men who were interested.
“ Veterans have been through the gamut of having been subjected
to almost every medication out there. Cannabis does the job so much
problems, societal effects, nausea, vomiting and so forth. But
I do not think the DEA agents are cognizant of that.”
Fred said the agent’s line about three percent of patients being legitimate
seemed like disinformation he’d picked up at a training.
“At some point they realized that we only had two thousand dollars in cash
and it was for our PG&E bill so they gave it back. I believe Agent Hughes
surmised that this actually was a legitimate medical grow. If this guy was wearing
an Italian suit he could be on the cover of Gentleman’s Quarterly, he was
that good looking. I realized he had his thing to do, to uphold the laws he’s
been sworn to uphold. And I had my thing to do, I got my veterans
to take care of, my disabled people to take care of. Where can
He said he wanted names of meth labs. I said, ‘If I knew of a meth lab,
it would be on your desk in a heartbeat.’ He said, ‘Good for you.’ So
he knows right off the bat that we have no use for meth labs,
we have no use for pill pushers of the type that profiteer, and
people that have profaned the name of medicinal cannabis.
He asked me if I’d help them penetrating the Compassionate Caregivers
club. They wanted to know where the money was going. I said basically all I
know about it is there’s some people who are pissed off at them occasionally,
but I hadn’t had any problems with them. They wanted to know who was
pissed off enough to give them more information. I couldn’t
come up with anybody.”
Fred acknowledged having sold part of his crop to dispensaries
when the union had fewer members. “When we did sell at one time to the clubs, our stuff
was always 5-star. Part of our secret was hormones and catalytic boosters to
increase the uptake of nutrients. The plant will continue to produce resins
and oils continuously, all you’ve got to do is feed it. In rock wool
you can get away with that. In soil you reach a saturation point but in rock
wool it’s continuous drainage. So you can continue to feed
that plant and it will grow and achieve medicinal grade.
The DEA said they were going to assay what they took from us for THC. So I’m
gonna find out. They got some that’s three weeks into bloom and some
that was fully. I’m sure it was up to 12%. I’m going to ask them
to give me that figure. Of course, if they give me an indictment they will,
it’ll be in there...
Hughes said he doesn’t want to see any kids using cannabis. He has a
baby and he doesn’t want his baby to grow up to use drugs. I said, ‘Look
Hughes, you and I are in that ballpark. I don’t believe that cannabis
should be legalized. I think that medical cannabis should be legalized and
administered so that kids don’t get it. I don’t think a kid can
perform at 100% efficiency after he’s been out smoking dope or using
alcohol. It’s just a physical impossibility. I want to keep it out of
the hands of children because it’s a medicine. It is not
a recreational drug...
“You have to get to the point in life where you can understand
what its use is and how it affects you. Without that basic perception
and understanding —what we call ‘the age of accountability’ in
the Mormon church— you should not be using cannabis.”
A Ukrainian mormon?
“In the old country some of my family were Jews who changed over to Catholicism
and Ukrainian Baptist. I grew up on both sides. When I decided to sober up —to
clean up my act with alcohol— a friend of mine talked to me about the Mormon
church. I realized that my family had been stunted because of my alcoholism.
There had to be something out there that would give us an anchor and some hope
and allow us to restart in another direction.
And I was glad there was because right off the bat there was a class at the
church about ‘benching’ children —time-outs instead of
beating them. I had been raised in a family where you beat children...
Instead of Sunday school they had a course taught by this psychologist.
It paid off because as soon as we started doing that instead of spanking
them — ‘You
sit down until you’re ready to talk to me about why you’re misbehaving’— and
they couldn’t leave that chair, they couldn’t play, they couldn’t
watch TV, the results were amazing.
“When I married my wife she had three children and then we had
three more children. And they all hated me. I was an alcoholic who
used the military tactics that I’d been taught all my life to
raise a family. It doesn’t work, that ‘my- way-or-the-highway’ type
of thing. With no middle ground, children rebel. I was able to salvage
good relations with three out of six. Thank God we’re all today
on speaking terms.
“Once I started sobering up and they saw a different side of me they began
to realize there was some hope for the old bastard. I had my last drink in 1979
and I’ve been sober ever since. I’m still active in AA today. I
have a lot of people I sponsor.”
Fred said he wished there were more cannabis-friendly meetings. “AA tries
to separate the two. I told my sponsors that there was only one way I could
have gotten sober without killing somebody. Coming back from the military situations
that I was in there was a lot of built-up anger and wrath inside of me and
I took it out on my family. I finally was able to get one year of sobriety
and then two. It took me three years after I joined the Mormon church. But
nobody ever came up to me and said ‘quit drinking’ or ‘quit
that damn cigarette smoking.’ It took me a long time to get rid of
I started using cannabis in 1976 when I quit drinking. By the grace of God,
I was a block away from a place called Tom’s Rent-a-Garden in San
Jose. He was a cannabis user himself and in the back of his rent-a-garden
cannabis for myself and we smoked three or four joints a day and I was
able to come down from alcohol without killing anybody or harming my
It was just like landing with what they call a 100-foot canopy parachute.
You land so soft you don’t even know you landed.
And I was able at that time also to go to AA meetings. Cannabis is
what kept me from going back to alcohol. No question about. I was
And I was going to church as well. I really wanted to change my life.
I realized that I was in a spiral. I just wanted to change my life.
to a point
where you realize that something’s got to change and it’s got to
be you. Nobody’s going to change around you to make room for
you. My wife gave me an ultimatum: straighten out or fly out, so
I had no
“ Once I straightened out I was able to get jobs and get back
on my feet and resurrect my life. My last civilian job was as a stockbroker
I was trained in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I was
supposed to go back and work on the 44th floor of the South Tower.
I have strong feelings about it because I knew people who were in the tower
at the time. My son-in-law had just received a job offer to work in the North
Tower. He was supposed to come in that day but the lady who hired him said ‘Don’t
bother’ because she wouldn’t be in till Wednesday.
That weekend was our Naval Academy 40th anniversary celebration. I was supposed
to go. A friend of mine had booked a block of seats and there was an extra
seat coming back, so I bought a one-way ticket on Jet Blue to go there and
then I’d have a free seat on the way back. At the last minute something
came up and I canceled. I would have been coming back on the plane that crashed
into the Pentagon. That was the third time in my life that I’d
cheated death that way.”
What happens next?
The DEA gave Fred reason to hope that no indictment will come down. “One
of the things they told me was, ‘You want to save yourself some money,
don’t bother getting an attorney because this is going to go away.’ I
don’t think they want to arrest a guy with an honorable discharge who’s
going to bring in some admirals as character witnesses. I told them, I fought
for this country and I bled for this country. I spent 93 days in Bethesda Navy
Hospital. They put me back together so they could send me back into submarines.
That’s how desperate they were for people. They may have had manpower
but not enough skilled manpower, and there’s a difference...
I said I’d be willing to help them with anybody who’s a crook in
this business but I’m not going to turn in a fellow veteran. There are
some thieves in this business and they’ll get taken down sooner or later.
But most of the people in the medical cannabis movement are pretty much straight
arrows and honest. There’s a few crooks. I know ‘em, I’ve
met ‘em, I’ve been on the losing end a few times. But they’re
few and far between and that’s why it’s a good movement to be in
as far as I’m concerned.
“To be able to be of service to other
people: that’s where I’ve derived most of my satisfaction
over the last few years. Seeing people all of a sudden be happy.
who when they walked in the door were pissed off, angry about
the world, sit down
and socialize with you and their attitude changes completely.
The Situation of Veterans
I also see it with the people coming back from Iraq. I didn’t get into
this too much with Agent Hughes because I didn’t want to give him names,
but there’s a lot of people who come back from the Iraq war who are really
bitter. Some of these people will never get the psychiatric help that they
really need. The rules are that you get 90 days of psychiatric help and if
you qualify for longer you have to show reason. The point is, without some
sort of support group other than the VA system these people are gonna be handled
the same way we handled the Vietnam veterans and we’re
going to have another horde of homeless people out on the
Veterans hook up with Fred through mutual friends, word of
mouth, the AA grapevine. “They
go to the VA and they run into someone who knows me. Or they run into Paul
at the Divisadero club, he’s a Vietnam veteran. Word
of mouth is how I like it.
“ The veterans have been prescribed drugs like morphine sulfate,
Vicodin. Our first grower was a perfect example. He was misdiagnosed
the VA. They fed him a whole bunch of drugs that damn near destroyed his pancreas.
Then they discovered that he really had pancreatitis all along!
They told him well, you’ve got so many years to live, and they gave him
a bunch of new drugs. With pancreatitis one of the symptoms is severe back
pain. He treated that with Vicodin. When that ran out he tried to get Oxycontin
on the street. Cannabis wasn’t strong enough for him. As a consequence
he became more and more strung out on these other drugs and it affected his
personality. One day after we’d raised some financial
questions he just walked out, left us with a dying crop.
I was thumbing through the book real quick. The thing to do with mites is just
get rid of the plant entirely and hope that it was only that one plant. To
get rid of them entirely, if you could afford it, you put in huge air conditioners
and grow your plants at about 60 degrees. At the same time you heat the nutrient
solution. That way you have what they call ‘the feet is warm and the
shoulders is cold.’ The mites can’t take the
cold. They head for Florida, man. So that was our plan.
The feds were half-right when they called this ‘a sophisticated operation.’ But
we had nowhere near the money for a really sophisticated
operation. If we had, we could have brought the price down to
get by on.”
The raid lasted about five hours, till 4 p.m. “The TV cameramen came,
the sheriff’s deputies, a woman from the DA’s office, just like
checking it out. ‘What should we do today?’ ‘Let’s
go to the bust...’
The only agent I had any trouble with,” Fred said, “was one who
kept trying to put words in my mouth. Like he says, ‘How long you been
selling marijuana to the clubs?’ I says, ‘The reason we’re
here is because we don’t want to deal with the clubs.
We want to deal with the patients directly. The clubs would
pay us a
of dollars and the patients will pay us an equivalen amount.
But the clubs will
mark that up and the patients will have to pay it.”
Fred said he had notified the landlord (who himself had undergone
chemotherapy and was not lacking in empathy) about the bust. “We need a month to get
out. I’m going to get a team of people in here and move stuff out and
then we’re going to have a going away party...
We had just upgraded the electricity, that’s what pisses me off. We’d
been blowing fuses all the time. One of our friends is a master electrician
and a good one. Now it’s upgraded and we gotta leave.”
When he drove home to San Jose after the bust, Fred said, “My wife told
me, ‘I’m glad you’re out of the business.’ My
sister said the same thing. The tension had been so dramatic...
My wife is a live-in
babysitter for my two grandsons, two wonderful boys. They
just love grandma and we love them.
A Blessing in Disguise?
I get down to see grandma on the weekends and my son-in-law and my daughter
take off for Crescent City. Last night the youngest got up at 9 o’clock
and headed for grandma’s bedroom just as I was heading for grandma’s
bedroom. Well, guess who got to sleep with grand-ma last
This boy is just beautiful. He has the Russian features, steel-blue-gray eyes...
And so, these kids and my wife made me think: ‘What
am I doing? Where are my priorities?’
It could be that this is a blessing in disguise. Not that I’m going to
stop doing what I was doing, but it can be done on a smaller scale. Within
reason. Like Agent Hughes said, ‘This guy Larry [the
owner of Compassionate Caregivers] is on my radar screen.’
I said, ‘How did I get on your radar screen?’ He didn’t
answer that question.
I said, ‘I’m gonna stay off your radar screen.’ I asked him, ‘If
I had grown less than a hundred plants would you be here?’ He went like
this—” Fred made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “He
didn’t come out and say ‘No, absolutely not,’ but...”
Fred estimated that the cost of prosecuting him would be
well over a quarter of a million dollars. “For what?” he asks rhetorically. “‘This
guy’s got zero assets, we’re not gonna take
his trailer. His navy dress sword? Come on!’
The DEA is going to have to start diverting their resources to some important
stuff. If they don’t, they’re gonna catch hell from the citizens
who are gonna wake up and say, ‘Wait a minute, you
busted these legitimate cannabis guys and these guys are
meth in my
Keeping medical cannabis illegal costs too damn much. Society may not be that
rational, but that’s our job, to explain that when you really boil it
down, does it make any sense to prosecute anybody who’s
growing for legitimate patients? We could have music programs
back in our
Fred related his thoughts about the bust in early April. On
June 18, according to our mutual friend Mike Mack, Fred was
by a big rig in San Jose
and died in the hospital the next day.