Pubdate: Fri, 19 Mar 2010
Source: News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
Copyright: 2010 The Associated Press
Author: Lisa Leff,  The Associated Press


SAN FRANCISCO -- Patients, growers and clinics in some of the 14
states that allow medical marijuana are falling victim to robberies,
home invasions, shootings and even murders at the hands of pot
thieves. There have been dozens of cases in recent months alone. The
issue received more attention this week after a prominent medical
marijuana activist in Seattle nearly killed a robber in a shootout -
the eighth time thieves had targeted his pot-growing operation.

News of crimes related to medical marijuana comes at an awkward time
for California and Washington advocates who are pushing to pass ballot
measures to allow all adults, not just the seriously ill, to possess
the drug. Critics say the heists and holdups prove that marijuana and
crime are inseparable. Marijuana advocates contend that further
legalization is the answer. "Whenever you are dealing with drugs and
money, there is going to be crime. If people think otherwise, they are
very naive," said Scott Kirkland, the police chief in El Cerrito,
Calif., and a vocal critic of his state's voter-approved medical
marijuana law.

"People think if we decriminalize it, the Mexican cartels and Asian
gangs are going to walk away. That's not the world I live in,"
Kirkland said. Activists and law enforcement officials say it is
difficult to get an accurate picture of crimes linked to medical
marijuana because many drug users don't report the crimes to police
for fear of arousing unwanted attention from the authorities.

But the California Police Chiefs Association used press clippings to
compile 52 medical marijuana-related crimes - including seven
homicides - from April 2008 to March 2009.

There also is plenty of anecdotal evidence: A man in Washington state
was beaten to death last week after confronting an intruder on the
rural property where he was growing cannabis to treat painful back

Medical marijuana activist Steve Sarich exchanged gunfire with
intruders in his Seattle home Monday, shooting and critically injuring
one of them. In California, a boy was shot to death while trying to
steal a cancer patient's pot plants from his home garden.

A respected magazine editor was killed in 2007 by robbers who targeted
his Northern California home for marijuana and money after hearing
that his teenage son was growing pot with a doctor's approval. Robbers
killed a security guard at a Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensary
in 2008.

Cops vs. activists Police and marijuana opponents say the violence is
further proof that the proliferation of medical marijuana is a problem
that will worsen if the drug is legalized or decriminalized.

Pot activists say the opposite: that prohibition breeds crime, and
legalization would solve the problem. They also say the robberies have
exposed the need for more regulation of medical marijuana laws in
states like California, Washington and Colorado.

"The potential for people to get ripped off and for people to use guns
to have to defend themselves against robbers is very real," said Keith
Stroup, founder and chief legal counsel for the National Organization
for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "But it's nothing to do with medical
marijuana. It is to do with the failure of states to regulate this."

The New Mexico way Marijuana advocates say there is adequate
regulation in New Mexico, where officials say there have been no
violent medical marijuana robberies. Medical cannabis is primarily
grown by a small number of regularly inspected nonprofits in New
Mexico, and the state keeps their names and locations confidential.
The law includes extensive requirements covering security, quality
control, staff training and education about the use of the drug. Most
medical marijuana states have only vague rules for caregivers or
dispensaries participating in a business with products that can fetch
$600 an ounce. Some states, including California and Colorado, can
only guess how many pot dispensaries they have because the businesses
don't have to register with the state.

"This is ridiculous, in my opinion, to have medical marijuana and no
regulation," Stroup said. "A jewelry store wouldn't open without
security, and if it did, a scuzzy person's going to break in and steal
all their diamonds." Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the
pro-pot Drug Policy Alliance, said that while the robberies are
disturbing, there is no way to conclude that legalized marijuana
breeds any more crime than convenience stores, banks or homes stocked
with expensive jewelry and electronics. In fact, Denver police said
the 25 robberies and burglaries targeting medical marijuana in the
city in the last half of 2009 amounted to a lower crime rate than what
banks or liquor stores there suffered. "I think what we are seeing is
a spate of crime that reflects the novelty of medical marijuana
cultivation and distribution through unregulated means," Gutwillig

California cities have been trying to rein in the drug in response to
a medical marijuana law that is the nation's most liberal. Detective
Robert Palacios of the Los Angeles Police Department said he has
investigated a half-dozen dispensary robberies in the last year, but
he has seen the number of such crimes drop in recent weeks after the
City Council moved to close many stores.

In all the cases he's investigated, armed robbers have stolen
marijuana, cash and other items. They often resell the drug on the
street. "They are going into a business and using a threat of force,"
Palacios said. "Even though they are in an establishment that itself
is questionably legal, it's our duty to investigate."
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