Medical Marijuana Payback Burns Colorado Police

January 07, 2008

Emil Steiner, Washington Post

Policing pot in Colorado is about to get a lot more complicated. The kick-in-the-door raids SWAT teams have long employed could now cost cities hundreds of thousands of dollars following two landmark court decisions upholding the state's constitutional protection of medical marijuana. Under the rulings, police departments are required to return any marijuana and paraphernalia taken from state-sanctioned growers, and can be sued by those growers if the crops aren't preserved.

The largest case thus far involves Kevin Dickes, who intends to sue the Denver suburb of Aurora for over $360,000 in pot damages. It comes less than a month after a judge ordered the return of an estimated $200,000 of medical marijuana to a couple in Fort Collins.

Dickes, a 38-year-old Desert Shield Marine who suffers from debilitating pain after catching grenade shrapnel in the Gulf, says he was treated worse by Colorado police than by anyone in Iraq. In April, 2007 officers raided his home after receiving a tip from a neighbor and, according to his lawyer Robert J. Corry Jr., threw the disabled veteran to the ground, held him at gunpoint and ransacked his home. They found 71 marijuana plants, at least 65 of which they confiscated illegally, and they charged Dickes with felony cultivation. After eight months of legal wrangling, the Arapahoe County district attorney dismissed the charges, determining that Dickes was in fact a certified grower. But, by then, his plants were long dead.

Thanks to a referendum passed in 2000, Article XVIII, Section 14 of the Colorado State Constitution stipulates that "any property... used in connection with the medical use of marijuana... shall not be harmed, neglected, injured, or destroyed while in the possession of state or local law enforcement officials." Not being equipped with the growroom or know-how to maintain them, Aurora police simply uprooted the plants and threw them in the evidence room. Det. Shannon Lucy, an Aurora police spokesperson, illustrated her department's cultivation ignorance, explaining that they kept only the leaves, which she called the "only thing of value," not the buds in which most of the active ingredient, THC, resides.

After obtaining a court order, Dickes attempted to pick up his property yesterday afternoon from the Aurora police department. According to Corry though, what the police returned was "dry and useless." Of the 71 plants, only an estimated 3 ounces remained, none of which were usable "from a medical perspective." He compared the incident to police seizing a person's car which they believed was stolen, "smashing the windows, pouring sugar in the gas tank, and then returning it," after discovering it wasn't stolen after all. Applying this general principle of law it seems natural to seek compensation and using the DEA standards for marijuana valuation, ($5,200/plant) Dickes will seek $369,200 in lost medicine.

Aurora Police Chief Daniel J. Oates, called that sum "absurd" and disputed the quantity of marijuana seized. He claims that at no point during the April 27th raid did Dickes inform police that he had a permit, though he also admitted that officers did not ask if he had one. It was only after Dickes was removed from the scene that a permit was found. "Frustrated" by the negative press over the incident, Chief Oates stressed to me that police immediately stopped their search when a permit was located, and got on the phone with a senior prosecutor who instructed them to leave 6 plants and all the grow equipment. Nonetheless Dickes was held and charged even after the permit was uncovered.

Despite the district attorney's dismissal and subsequent court order for return of the marijuana, Oates believes his officers acted correctly and finds the idea of compensating medical marijuana growers to be "absurd." And while refusing to give examples on the record, he further asserted that the "current process for medical marijuana certification could easily be abused by people who want to grow it illegally." If compensation becomes the status quo, he argued "it is going to place more and more departments in a dilemma" that conflicts state and Federal law.

Medical marijuana advocates disagree, stating that Colorado police are charged with upholding Colorado law and not federal law. "He is just saying the law is inconvenient," says Corry who also points out that Oxycontin laws can be abused, but that it is still a medicine that is legally prescribed to patients. Colorado voters decided in 2000 to protect patients who use marijuana as medicine, not those who use it recreationally. "Police take an oath to protect the law, you don't get to pick and choose which laws to follow."

Dickes plans on filing his suit later this month. If he wins it will be the single biggest payout for the illegal seizure of marijuana, and may open the door for other cash strapped cities to be sued for tactics which elsewhere are a common part of drug enforcement. Whether such a historic payback will motivate police to change their policies for raiding grow houses or motivate Colorado citizens to reexamine their constitution remains to be seen. For now, though, it appears that Centennial State Constitution is a pot farmer's best bud.



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