Feds raid medical marijuana operations in Missoula, statewide

March 13, 2011

Gwen Florio, The Missoulian

Federal raids hit medical marijuana shops from Columbia Falls to Billings on Monday, spreading "a horrible mixture of fear and rage" through a community already roiled by high-profile attempts to regulate it. "The reckless and cruel disregard for the patients that count on these shops is going to cause a lot of heartache," said John Masterson of Missoula, who heads Montana NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), which live-blogged information about the raids throughout the day Monday.

Advocates for medical marijuana noted that federal agents executed their search warrants even as a Montana Senate panel collected testimony on a bill to repeal the state's 2004 voter initiative legalizing medicinal use of marijuana. (See related story.)

"It sure feels like a blatant, obvious, calculated, bullying interference by the federal government in Montana decision-making," said Tom Daubert, a leading medical marijuana advocate, who was in the committee hearing Monday morning when he heard about the raids.

The only Missoula business that reported being affected was Montana Cannabis, which opened in January at the corner of Brooks Street and Stephens Avenue.

"We're closed," employee Toni Ware said to clients as they pulled up to the shop early Monday afternoon. "We're closed."

"They even took our cannabis-infused lotion," she said a minute later.

Montana Cannabis also owns a huge greenhouse along U.S. Highway 12 on the western outskirts of Helena, where federal agents with guns drawn handcuffed several employees during Monday's raid, according to an Associated Press report. Shops in Columbia Falls, Bozeman and Billings, among others, also reported being raided. (See related story.) Ware said that no one was arrested during the operation at the Missoula store.

However, she said agents took plants and products - the business advertises, among other things, bars of medicinal soap at $20 each - as well as computers and all client records.

"They're seizing everything - plants, marijuana, grow equipment, files and computers. It's very, very broad in its scope," said Chris Lindsey, a Missoula attorney who specializes in medical marijuana cases and who has a lingering business interest in Montana Cannabis. Lindsey said he spent much of Monday fielding calls seeking information about the raids.


Victoria Francis of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Helena said the search warrants remained sealed Monday.

However, Americans for Safe Access, a national advocacy group based in California and Washington, D.C., asked the businesses raided Monday to fax in the warrants.

One warrant provided by Big Sky Patient Care in Bozeman directed agents to seize items such as marijuana, drug paraphernalia, cell phones and computers "that are evidence of the commission of drug trafficking offenses."

"This smacks of officials, whether law enforcement or hostile local public officials, not getting their way and sidestepping the democratic process to shut down legitimate providers," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access.

He criticized federal agents for pursuing cases against medical marijuana providers despite Attorney General Eric Holder's memo of October 2009 that termed prosecution of people legitimately using medical marijuana "unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources." The number of medical marijuana cardholders in Montana nearly quadrupled in the 16 months after the memo was issued.

The memo specified that it does not apply to businesses that break state law. Since that federal memo was issued, more than 50 businesses have been raided in states with flourishing legal medical marijuana markets - California, Colorado, Nevada and Michigan, and now Montana, Hermes said.

Daubert said the raids could only hurt efforts to tweak Montana's marijuana law, which even many medical marijuana advocates term so vague as to have allowed for abuse.

"Here we've spent nearly a year working cooperatively as Montanans to define the problems and propose solutions," said Daubert, who was one of the founders of Montana Cannabis, but has since divested himself of his interest. "Then at a very critical moment, suddenly the big brother heel of federal government comes down on growers and providers. ... It certainly feels like a calculated attempt to influence Montana decision-making."

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