Case highlights medical-pot dilemma
January 23, 2007
Diane Brooks, Seattle Times
The lush, green replacements began arriving the day after an Olympic Peninsula-based drug task force raided Steve Sarich's North Everett home, carting away an estimated 1,500 marijuana plants.
By Sunday, nine days after the Jan. 12 raid, Sarich's new nursery numbered 50 plants — eight big enough for their own pots, 15 starter-sized plants with roots and 27 freshly cut clones, each stuck into its own egg-sized pod of sod.
"If they didn't arrest me with 1,500, it's not likely they're going to come back and arrest me for 50," said Sarich, whose advocacy group, CannaCare, says it has provided marijuana plants for 1,200 patients all over the state. Some of his new plants, delivered by patients in Longview, Federal Way and Vancouver, Wash., are descendants of the plants he lost.
Now he's waiting to see what comes next.
The U.S. Attorney's Office will decide whether to prosecute Sarich in U.S. District Court, said Jeff Eig, a spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
In that instance, Sarich could be in serious trouble, because federal courts don't recognize the state's Medical Marijuana Act, approved by voters in 1998. Washington is among 11 states with some form of legalized marijuana use for certain medical patients, including those under treatment for cancer, intractable pain, glaucoma and seizures.
"There's no such thing as medical marijuana," Eig said, flatly discounting such laws.
If federal prosecutors decline to take the case, investigators could offer it to Snohomish County prosecutors, who would look at Sarich's case in light of the state law. But that's tricky, too, because state law doesn't address the question of how medical-marijuana users may legally obtain their pot, or define how many plants each person may possess.
Instead, it states that each person — or that person's caretaker — may possess a 60-day supply, which isn't defined. The law doesn't touch the subject of who may legally provide plants to patients or their caretakers.
"They have to get them from somewhere. They don't just spring out of the air," said Sarich, who has medical authorization to use marijuana to alleviate spinal pain, but says he only produced plants to give to other patients.
Snohomish County Prosecutor Janice Ellis called the conflicting state and federal laws "troubling."
Ellis, who chairs the governor's Council on Substance Abuse, said Sarich came into her office in December to discuss CannaCare's legal goals. She remembers he talked about the starter plants he grows for other patients, but she doesn't recall whether he discussed the size of his nursery.
"The image he is presenting, and I think very effectively, is that he is someone who is trying hard to bring integrity to the debate of medical marijuana," Ellis said. "The law doesn't provide a mechanism through which people can legally obtain plants and grow their own for medical needs."
The Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force also was aware that Sarich was growing medicinal marijuana, said team commander Pat Slack. The team prioritizes a very busy caseload, he said, and Sarich didn't seem to merit scrutiny.
State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who helped create the state medical-marijuana initiative, said she plans to introduce a bill this session to clarify patients' rights to obtain and grow marijuana and to better define "caretaker." Today, she was scheduled to meet with state prosecutors, police and sheriffs associations to seek support and consensus for her proposal.
Marijuana leaves contain usable amounts of THC, the drug's active ingredient, only when the plants are in their flower or bud stages, Sarich said, adding that none of his seized plants were in bud.
The West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team (WestNET), serving Kitsap and Mason counties on the Olympic Peninsula, says Sarich drew attention when he and a former associate, John Worthington of Renton, filed declarations in a federal case against another alleged marijuana grower.
A team detective — Roy Alloway, a Kitsap County Sheriff's deputy — persuaded a Kitsap County judge to grant a search warrant for Sarich's home by portraying that unnamed alleged grower, a Vashon Island man, as a major drug distributor who operated across state lines.
Alloway wrote, in the court document, that Worthington had threatened legal action against WestNET for allegedly using state funds to enforce federal marijuana laws.
That combination of factors led Alloway to investigate the pair, he wrote. That investigation turned up Sarich's high power bill, which was consistent with marijuana production. Alloway also said he went to Sarich's home and smelled marijuana from a nearby alley.
Sarich and Worthington, whose home was raided Jan. 12, say Alloway lied to the judge to retaliate against them for their yearlong investigation into WestNET's raids on medical-marijuana patients.
Sarich calls the problem "entrapment by initiative." Drug teams raid the homes of medicinal-marijuana patients, then turn their cases over to federal prosecutors to circumvent the state law, he said.
"The state tells you you're legal, then the state sends in a state-funded drug task force, manned by state employees, who then turn you over to the feds," Sarich said.
Sgt. Carlos Rodriguez, leader of WestNET, said he didn't know about Sarich's advocacy work for medical marijuana, and he laughed at the men's claim that Alloway carried a personal vendetta against them.
We wouldn't be in business if we took retaliatory-type actions," he said.
Diane Brooks: 425-745-7802 or firstname.lastname@example.org