Operation Limelight

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Forrest Anderson was nervous. The Oakland weed activist was about to walk into the last place a weed activist ever wants to be. But something dark was bubbling in the local marijuana community, something that threatened not just his livelihood but the very future of the movement, and the only people who could stop it were the traditional enemies of marijuana lovers everywhere.

He had to go to the FBI.

He had to tell them about Superman.

Forrest had spent a decade in the cannabis industry. His family had long believed in the medicinal powers of marijuana, smoking together and spreading the good word. Their shared passion for the plant spurred them to open one of the earliest retail dispensaries in Oakland, after California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, allowing sales to patients but offering no protection against the U.S. government. They developed a loyal clientele and tried to be good neighbors. “We paid people’s dental bills,” Forrest said. “We paid people’s power bills. We took care of our patients.”

But a dispute over building and fire code violations interrupted the family’s business for five years. By the time they needed a new license, everything had changed. Pot was starting to go mainstream. Economists predicted that if California voters took the next step beyond medical marijuana and legalized pot for recreational use, it would spawn a $20 billion industry in the state. Unapologetic capitalists were charging into the market, starting cannabis companies with Wall Street money.

And at the center of the action, cutting deals left and right, stood the guy who called himself Superman: a burly labor organizer who was reputed to be close with the Hells Angels. He rode around Oakland on a big black motorcycle with a Superman decal on the front, the iconic red-and-yellow shield, and his name, Dan Rush, written beneath in large blue letters.

Rush was cannabis director for the United Food and Commercial Workers. He’d become a major face of the legal pot movement in California and beyond, giving quotes to national media outlets and lobbying politicians to pass cannabis-friendly laws.

The Andersons, though, had seen another side of Dan Rush. Forrest found him scarier than even the FBI.

And so, one morning in the fall of 2012, Forrest and his father Carl drove over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco to meet with an FBI Special Agent Roahn Wynar. For Wynar, this was also an unexpected moment. The FBI didn’t typically arrange friendly meetings with cannabis dealers; it busted them.

But the Andersons had promised to share information about a nest of white-collar crime linked to the cannabis industry, and that happened to be a deep interest of Wynar’s, who specialized in probing fraud and public corruption.

Forrest could feel his heart beating faster than normal. He didn’t know it yet, but he and Carl were about to set in motion one of the most surprising federal investigations in Bay Area history.

Over the past two years, reporter Jason Fagone explored in-depth how a union official with a dream of rebuilding the labor movement through cannabis legalization ended up in prison.

San Francisco Chronicle
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