Four Corners, Belgrade caregivers raided by feds

March 14, 2011

Daniel Person, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

At least two medical marijuana businesses in Gallatin County were raided by federal agents Monday, part of an operation that saw at least 10 businesses searched by federal authorities statewide. The raids left plants strewn across the ground and business owners and patients locked out of their stores with more questions than answers. Raids were also reported in Helena, Missoula and Columbia Falls, some of them conducted by gun-wielding agents.

"They won't say anything," Valarie Sigler said as she watched federal agents mill around Big Sky Patient Care, the Four Corners medical marijuana business she owns with her husband.

On Monday afternoon, federal agents stood guard at the front door. When people arrived, the agents flashed their badges and asked if they were patients. Eventually, a man backed a U-Haul truck up to the building, which the Siglers expected would be used to haul away marijuana, medical records and money from the shop that serves 400 people.

As the raid continued, patients vowed their support, and tears smeared Sigler's mascara as she watched the scene unfold.

"They're bankrupting us is what they're doing," she said, noting that they had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into the business.

In Belgrade, marijuana plants worth tens of thousands of dollars were scattered across the ground behind MCM Caregivers' storefront on Dollar Drive.

Owner Randy Leibenguth said he wasn't at the shop when agents entered the store and handcuffed an employee he said was "in her 60s." Leibenguth said she was released when the agents saw there were no weapons on the premises.

When he arrived, agents presented him a "very vague" warrant.

"It's going to devastate us, really," he said while taking a drag off his cigarette and fielding calls on his cell phone.

Federal agents at the businesses refused to comment on what prompted the raids and at times threatened to remove reporters from the area for taking photographs of them.

Questions were referred to Mike Turner, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman in Denver. Turner, in turn, referred questions to an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Montana, Victoria Frances. Frances would not comment on the raids, only saying that the search warrants were sealed and that more information would be released at a later time.

The warrant served to Big Sky Patient Care was released Monday afternoon by Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group. It gives little indication of what led federal agents to raid the business but states that the warrant was being executed in order to find evidence of drug trafficking. The warrant was signed by U.S. District Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch.

In 2004, Montana voters approved an initiative that legalized medical marijuana. The industry flourished after the Obama administration said it would not prosecute medical marijuana providers who were complying with state law.

As the number of marijuana patients ballooned in the state, some lawmakers sought to repeal the law - an effort that was set back Monday when a Senate committee in Helena tabled the main repeal bill.

With the raids beginning shortly after the repeal measure was stopped, some questioned the timing.

"We could argue about whether the timing is accidental or coincidental, but it should raise questions about why now, and is there an intent to skirt the democratic process," said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access.

Sigler said she felt persecuted for her work against that bill.

"I just find it really funny that they did this right when we were fighting the repeal," she said. "We were up at the Capitol every week standing up for patients."

Hermes said that similar raids have occurred in other states.

Later, the Siglers' lawyer Chuck Watson said the raids could signal a change in the way the Department of Justice intends to enforce medical marijuana laws.

"They wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't coming out of the Department of Justice in Washington," Watson said.

"I believe Mark and Valarie have conducted their businesses in good faith, based on what they believed they could do legally," he said. "They've invited law enforcement into their facilities. They've asked for law enforcement to tell them if they are complying with the law."

The raids seemed to send shudders through Gallatin County's medical marijuana community, with concerned providers calling the Chronicle for information. One storefront in Four Corners was locked up with its shades drawn during its posted business hours.

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