Medicinal marijuana raids in Montana stun advocates

March 17, 2011

John S. Adams, USA TODAY

Federal agencies conducted 26 raids on medical marijuana facilities in 13 Montana cities this week, as agents seized thousands of marijuana plants and froze about $4 million in bank funds. The raids stunned medical marijuana advocates, many of whom believed the Obama administration's policy was to leave states with medical marijuana laws alone.

That belief stemmed from Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement in October 2009 that the pursuit of "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance" with existing state medical marijuana laws would be the lowest priority of U.S. law enforcement.

"I think most everybody believed the directive from the Justice Department was that no priority would be given to utilizing Justice Department resources in going after medical marijuana operations if local authorities believed they were operating legally under state law," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance.

Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter said there was "probable cause that the premises were involved in illegal and large-scale trafficking of marijuana."

"When criminal networks violate federal laws, those involved will be prosecuted," he said.

While 15 states have legalized some form of medical marijuana use, the federal government still considers the drug an illegal controlled substance with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.

Kris Hermes of the California-based Americans for Safe Access, which advocates legal access to marijuana for therapeutic uses, said since Holder's 2009 memo, federal agents have now executed 74 raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, cultivators and laboratories in five of the 15 states — California, Colorado, Michigan, Montana and Nevada.

Hermes said most raids don't lead to indictments or prosecutions, though the seizures can cost businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost product and damage. Just 23 people have been indicted on charges stemming from the previous 46 raids, Hermes said.

Justice Department officials contend the focus of investigations involving marijuana is on large-scale drug traffickers and not on individual patients.

"We have made clear that we are not going to look the other way while significant drug-trafficking organizations try and shield their illegal efforts from investigation and prosecution through the pretense that they are medical dispensaries," Justice Department spokeswoman Jessica Smith said.

Marijuana advocates say enforcement of illegal activities involving medical marijuana should fall to the states, not the federal government.

"If these were operating in violation of state law, why were the feds needed?" Nadelmann said.

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