Federal agents raid medical marijuana businesses

March 14, 2011

Kristen Cates, Great Falls Tribune

Federal and local law enforcement officials raided medical marijuana operations in at least six Montana cities Monday. According to the Oakland, Calif.-based pro-medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access, at least 10 businesses were raided across the state, including in Helena, Missoula, Belgrade, Columbia Falls, Bozeman and Billings.

According to a search and seizure warrant served at one of the raided facilities, officials were looking for evidence of illegal drug trafficking offenses in violation of federal law.

Under state law registered patients are allowed to use limited amounts of the drug for certain health conditions, and registered caregivers can grow up to six plants per registered patient.

Federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration were seen clearing hundreds of marijuana plants out of Montana Cannabis' greenhouses Monday as local law enforcement officials stood by outside the building. Montana Cannabis, with one facility just west of Helena, is one of the state's largest medical marijuana operations.

Several employees were also detained for questioning.

According to Chris Williams, one of the owners of Montana Cannabis, one employee was arrested on an unrelated outstanding warrant but no other arrests were made.

According to Williams, agents were executing a warrant signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah C. Lynch of Missoula.

A copy of the warrant served at a different facility and also signed by Lynch states that the warrant was issued on Friday but that officials had until March 24 to execute the search. It is not clear if more raids are planned in the coming days or weeks.

According to the warrant, agents were authorized to seize everything from marijuana and hashish and Ziploc bags to cell phones, computers and medical marijuana patient lists.

"(Judge Lynch) authorized federal agents to come in and enforce federal law above state law," Williams said. "This is a state issue not a federal issue. There shouldn't be federal agents on my ground when we've done everything we can to do this right."

Local officials in Lewis and Clark and Flathead counties confirmed their agencies' involvement but directed media inquiries to the U.S. Attorney's office.

Victoria Francis, assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana, declined to comment on the raids other than to say that the U.S. Attorney's office would be issuing a press release in the coming days. Officers at the scene near Helena also refused to comment.

Williams told reporters that agents showed up without warning at the greenhouse west of Helena around 10 a.m. Monday. Williams said armed agents burst into the business with guns drawn and ordered employees to get down on the ground.

At least eight hand-cuffed people could be seen through the chain link fence that surrounds the facility. Several employees were released after questioning.

Federal agents donning paper masks, respirators, and what appeared to be oxygen masks attached to large yellow tanks, were seen through the large glass windows of the greenhouse, pulling plants from their black plastic pots and removing them from the building.

Medical marijuana supporters were outraged at the timing and scope of Monday's raids as lawmakers at the state Capitol continue to debate the future of Montana's medical marijuana law.

Tom Daubert, one of the lead authors of the 2004 marijuana law and founder of the pro-medical marijuana group Patients and Families United, condemned Monday's raids, calling them "calculated and political on the part of the federal government."

"Montanans have now spent nearly a year defining problem areas and proposing solutions to our law," Daubert said. "We are now at the height of the process of evaluating those choices and decisions and making those choices and decisions. I think all Montanans, regardless of our agreement or disagreement on medical marijuana, should unite in condemning the federal government for intruding in this way at this critical decision-making moment."

Until November Daubert was a part owner of Montana Cannabis. Daubert said he no longer has a financial stake in any medical marijuana caregiver operations.

As the raids were under way, lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee were in the process of voting on a House-passed measure to repeal the 2004 voter-approved Medical Marijuana Act. The panel failed to pass the measure on a 6-6 vote.

Barb Trego, a medical marijuana patent and the mother of one of the Montana Cannabis employees who was detained, came in tears from the Capitol to the greenhouse business. Trego said word that the raids were under way spread via text messages as she was sitting in the committee room listening to lawmakers debate the repeal measure.

Trego said she believed some of the senators who voted for repeal of the state's medical marijuana law had advance notice of the raids.

"Those smug senators that voted against it were sitting there laughing because they knew all of this was going on," Trego said. "Even though the vote didn't go their way they were all smiling at us."

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