Deputies bust pot garden

September 18, 2005

John Jensen, Lake County Record-Bee

CLEARLAKE OAKS -- Unclear documentation and what authorities allege was lack of compliance with state law led to the recent seizure of hundreds of marijuana plants.

The Lake County Sheriff's Office arrested one person and confiscated more than 500 marijuana plants from a hilltop marijuana growing operation known as the Patient's Alliance in Clearlake Oaks Sept. 7.

Michael Nilsen of Patient's Alliance said LCSO acted outside the law by arresting him and pulling out the plants, which he said belonged to 90 medical marijuana patients both inside and outside the county. He claims to have been "robbed at badgepoint."

The operation came to LCSO's attention during a "routine overflight mission," said Detective Steve Brooks.

Based upon what he saw multiple rows of marijuana growing in plain sight Brooks obtained a search warrant to check out the plants.

Sgt. Mike Morshed examined the operation's books. After spending a couple of hours engaged in that task, Morshed determined that Patient's Alliance was growing marijuana for multiple out-of-county residents, including individuals from San Francisco, Oakland and Sonoma Counties.

And therein, according to California law, is the problem.

Senate Bill 420, passed in 2003, allows "primary caregivers" to have multiple patients within the same city or county, but just one patient outside.

Nilsen who leases the property used for Patient's Alliance presented doctors' referrals for multiple patients to account for the hundreds of marijuana plants being grown there, Brooks and Morshed reported.

The number of out-of-area patients accounted for part of the decision to pull the plants, Brooks said. Another factor, he said, involved interviews with people at the scene.

"Out of the statements that we took there were many inconsistencies," he said.

Inconsistencies, Brooks said, involved how many plants each volunteer gardener was to have for their own. SB 420 allows for a specific number of plants for each person with a doctor's referral. Workers in the field, Morshed said, told detectives at the scene that they were there working in the field hoping for a jar or "whatever he (Nilsen) decides to give us," Morshed quoted.

"These people were not getting their five plants," Brooks said.

"This totally contradicts the statute," Morshed added.

Nilsen contends that the rationale for removing the plants was based upon the statement of one person his girlfriend who told detectives she was sharing a mason jar of marijuana with Nilsen.

"They used that as their basis for eradicating 90-something people's medicine," he said. "That completely startles me."

The people in the field, who Morshed said are Proposition 215 cardholders, should have had their specific plants allotted to them.

"It sounded like they were at the mercy of whatever Mike (Nilsen) decided to give them," Morshed said. "So right there, now you're getting marijuana for tending the garden."

Nilsen said he is concerned that without the garden producing marijuana, some people will turn to cannabis clubs to obtain their medicine. "There's gonna be people out there who have to spend thousands of dollars on clubs," he said. "Club prices are insane."

Morshed's position is that while there were probably people obtaining marijuana from the Patient's Alliance for legitimate medical reasons, enough warning signs existed to suggest the operation was not on the "up and up."

"They're flying under the flag of the medical grow," he said. "There may have been some people needing it who are getting it I'm also sure they're not running the operation the way Mike is telling us."

Morshed said that while detectives were there to serve the warrant and inspect the operation, had it been clearly legitimate, they would have left without pulling a single plant.

Morshed said from the air hundreds of legitimate marijuana grows can be seen. "You can tell right away if it looks like it's in compliance," Morshed said.

Compliant grows typically are smaller, he said, with 10 or 11 well-tended plants and paperwork to clearly indicate who is responsible for them.

Brooks investigates grows "as he can" and observed that legitimate growers are "quite open with it." But he hasn't seen them all, he said. "I don't have enough time in a day to run after these medical grows."

Inconsistencies at the Patient's Alliance led LCSO to believe that the marijuana garden was questionably legitimate and for that reason they decided to remove the plants, Morshed and Brooks explained.

"We're not trying to target people," Morshed said. "We're just trying to make sure they're in compliance."

He added, "We really don't want to give the legitimate people problems; we just want to stop the profiteers using the 215 banner."

The story isn't over; Nilsen will be in court on Oct. 7.

Contact John Jensen at jjensen@record-bee.com.



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