Ryan Olson, Chico Enterprise Record

A group of seven people qualified for medicinal marijuana are suing Butte County officials after a sheriff's deputy ordered the destruction of nearly all their plants.

The Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access is filing a lawsuit in Butte County Superior Court on behalf of David Williams and six other plaintiffs. The lawsuit alleges Butte County officials violated the law by refusing to recognize their established collective.

Joe Elford, the group's chief counsel, said Butte County's policies conflict with state law for cooperative and collective pot production. He said it's a manifestation of local governments' hostility toward the medical marijuana laws.

"People are being deprived of their medicine in every way possible which could nullify the right to use medical marijuana promised by voters when they enacted Prop. 215 in 1996," Elford said.

The lawsuit names the county, the Sheriff's Office, District Attorney Mike Ramsey and deputy Jacob Hancock as defendants. In addition to seeking $75,000 in damages from the pot seizure, the group wants a jury to change the officials' policy toward collectives and protect the Williams group from further prosecution.

The 2003 law updating Proposition 215 permits qualified patients to form collectives or cooperatives to grow marijuana.

District Attorney Mike Ramsey hasn't seen the lawsuit yet, but he said the county has adopted guidelines covering collectives. They were informally in place at the time of the incident.

The guidelines — published online at http://www.buttecounty.net/da/215.htm — call for members to "actively participate in cultivation." The group should document each members' contact info, doctor recommendations and contributions.

The collective may not grow more than the total of each member's medical needs and not distribute outside the group, the guidelines state. Ramsey said it goes against the spirit of Proposition 215 if a group dispenses pot to non-participants.

Ramsey said the Sheriff's Office has cooperated with several collectives that have contacted them for information.

"I encourage people to look at the guidelines on the Web site and call the Sheriff's Office to get their collectives inspected," Ramsey said.

Ramsey said county deputies are "pretty compassionate" to legitimate growers, but aren't as forgiving toward people who attempt to take advantage of the law's vagaries.

"There are obviously people out there who are growing for their own medical needs," Ramsey said.

Capt. Jerry Smith at the Sheriff's Office referred questions to the County Counsel's Office, which hasn't received the lawsuit.

Williams said Thursday his group of friends with medical problems decided to establish the collective and share the costs of growing the marijuana. They chose to grow the plants at Williams' house off of Highway 70.

Several members helped with the plants, but at least two — one who lacks a driver's license and one who is housebound — were unable to help.

Williams said Butte County deputies visited his property after flying over with a helicopter.

Although Williams showed doctors' recommendations for all the members of his group, he said Hancock ordered the removal of 29 of the 41 plants. The house's two residents — Williams and his wife — kept the remainder.

Although the deputies allegedly conducted a warrantless search, Elford said the lawsuit focuses on the improper seizure of the 29 pot plants.

The lawsuit doesn't identify the others because of criminal prosecution concerns. Two of the other plaintiffs are Williams' wife and Rebecca Conley, who was present at the raid. David Williams said the deputy wouldn't permit Conley to keep her plants although she showed him papers.

The original collective split up after the September raid, according to Williams. He has formed a new group of five, but attorneys advised him to not notify authorities because of prosecution concerns.

To avoid problems, Williams said he logs the group's activities and each member comes up at least once a week to maintain the crop and meet.

Although he believes he's complying with the guidelines, he said local officials need to clarify the policy and make sure it's within state law.

"It's very, very gray," Williams said.


Staff writer Ryan Olson can be reached at 896-7763 or [email protected].