FBI makes medical marijuana seizures in Lakeport

October 04, 2007

Elizabeth Larson, Lake County News

LAKEPORT – The Federal Bureau of Investigation and local authorities last week seized nearly 100 marijuana plants from a home whose owner said he was growing it for medicinal purposes.

Lt. Brad Rasmussen of the Lakeport Police Department said the raid took place at the home of Matthew Ward within the Lakeport city limits on the morning of Sept. 27.

Police became aware of the plants by accident, said Rasmussen. A US Forest Service marijuana flight went over the home and a federal law enforcement officer spotted the grow.

Once it was determined to be in Lakeport's jurisdiction, police discussed the matter with the FBI, who Rasmussen said ordered the seizure.

“They are taking the lead on the investigation,” said Rasmussen.

Lakeport Police wrote search warrants which were served Sept. 27. Rasmussen said accompanying four Lakeport Police officers were agents from the FBI and the Lake County Narcotic Task Force.

Taken were a total of 97 plants, said Rasmussen 84 mature, 13 immature plus a little more than a pound of processed marijuana.

Ward, who said he is co-owner of the Clearlake-based D&M Compassion Center, a medical marijuana dispensary, was at work at the dispensary when the raid took place.

“It was totally a legal garden,” Ward said, adding that he believed his home was outside of the city's limits and therefore not in Lakeport Police jurisdiction.

He added that the grow was in no way connected to the dispensary.

Ward said he was growing medical marijuana under the auspices of Proposition 215, and that the plants were for 16 people with doctors' recommendations, including himself. Rasmussen said police had information that Ward actually was growing for 25 people with recommendations.

According to California's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Proposition 215 allows individuals with a medical marijuana recommendation from a licensed physician to have six mature or 12 immature plants, and 8 ounces of marijuana, unless local governments authorize more or a physician rules that more is needed.

Rasmussen pointed out that while Ward's grow appeared legal under Proposition 215, that's a state law, which federal authorities don't recognize. Federal law holds all marijuana growing to be illegal.

Ward said he wasn't presented with a federal search warrant, which was one reason he questioned the validity of the search. While they took all of the plants, growing equipment was left untouched, he added.

He said he's talking to six different attorneys who have advised him not to pursue a case. “There's nothing I can do at this point.”

Part of the reason he doesn't plan to pursue a legal case, he added, is that he's concerned about retaliation, including having D&M Compassion Center shut down.

He said he had seen helicopters pass over the garden and that Lakeport Police officers had casually pulled into his yard at about 10:30 p.m. on a weekday night the previous week, although they weren't there to look for marijuana.

Although this is his first year growing marijuana in Lakeport, he's grown it in other areas of the county. “I keep it legal,” said Ward. “You obey the law.”

He added, “You would hope you would be protected by the state.”

Ward estimated a year's worth of medical marijuana was taken, amounting to thousands of dollars of medicine that he said was intended for people on fixed incomes. They'll now have to go to marijuana clubs and pay higher prices, he said.

“I was doing it for people who really needed the help and they just kicked the feet out of under me,” Ward said.

Rasmussen said the FBI is trying to form a case against Ward in order to prosecute him in federal court. Once the FBI investigation is complete the case will be submitted to the US Attorney.

The FBI also has sent evidence to the Department of Justice Laboratory, which could result in an additional case being submitted to the Lake County District Attorney's Office, Rasmussen said.

Police are holding evidence samples for the FBI, said Rasmussen. None of the seized plants will be returned because, under federal law, growing marijuana is illegal.

The marijuana plants already have been destroyed, Rasmussen added.

August seizure won't be prosecuted

The FBI recently notified Lakeport Police that another marijuana seizure it made in Lakeport would not be prosecuted by the US Attorney, according to Rasmussen.

On Aug. 28, the FBI, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and local law enforcement agencies conducted parole searches on parolees with previous gang affiliations, as Lake County News previously reported.

During that enforcement officers visited the Brush Street home of Howard Holtz, 70, where a recent parolee, 20-year-old Adam Southard, had moved in the previous month, Holtz said.

Rasmussen said officers found swords and knives in another person's room at the house, but because Southard could access them – which violated his parole terms – he was arrested.

Holtz said during the search an FBI agent spotted his 30 mature marijuana plants growing on a porch, which had a fiberglass wall to protect the plants from public view. The agent ordered the plants seized.

“I almost was going to harvest some of them that same day,” said Holtz.

Four people with medical recommendations live at the seven-bedroom home with Holtz, who said he also was growing medical marijuana for a fifth person. This is Holtz's second year growing medical marijuana.

Although he said he wasn't happy with the seizures, Holtz said all of the officers and agents were “decent” and that he wants to try to work out the issues with local authorities. He said he doesn't believe the Americans for Safe Access local chapter will take action in the case.

Holtz said the people with recommendations must now buy their marijuana. “What federal law is doing is making people support the underground in the state of California.”

He said he also is speaking with Bay Area attorneys, but added, “You cannot win when the feds get involved.”

In March, the Lakeport City Council passed an ordinance written by Police Chief Kevin Burke that prohibits medical marijuana cultivation within city limits, citing public safety concerns and the strong odor the plants give off when maturing.

Rasmussen said the ordinance had no bearing on the recent marijuana seizures. “The City Council has enacted it but have not requested enforcement of it.”

This spring Oakland attorney William Panzer sent the city a letter warning of possible litigation over the ordinance.

Added Holtz, “Realistically, if they try to enforce the ordinance, they can't afford the court case.”

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