Pubdate: Thu, 24 Mar 2011
Source: Missoula Independent (MT)
Copyright: 2011 Missoula Independent
Author: Matthew Frank


Justification for Marijuana Raids Remains Hazy

Confusion lingers in the wake of last week's raids of medical
marijuana businesses around the state. Affidavits filed by the U.S.
Attorney's office indicate the federal government based the warrants
largely on suspicions of caregivers purchasing marijuana from other
caregivers. But state law is mute on the subject, so the justification
doesn't square with the feds' claim that the raided businesses
violated state law in ways "clear and unambiguous." In fact, little
about Montana's Medical Marijuana Act seems clear and unambiguous,
leaving those targeted in the raids--who saw their plants and growing
supplies seized and, in some cases, bank accounts frozen--baffled about
the laws they allegedly broke, and bracing for federal

The U.S. attorney's office in Montana has said nothing to clarify the
situation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Victoria L. Francis declined to
comment, except to say that the federal agents' focus on businesses
that supposedly violated state law "may be an exercise of
prosecutorial discretion." Still, the search warrants and affidavits
cite only federal laws, and, as Francis says, "The thing we would be
enforcing is federal law."

Speaking last Friday at a statewide Montana Bar Association meeting,
Montana U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said the policy of the Department of
Justice, which in 2009 announced its intention to stop prosecuting
state-sanctioned medical marijuana, has not changed. But that policy
appears now to be open to question.

The affidavit filed for the warrant to search Montana Cannabis, one of
the largest "cannabusinesses" in the state, underscores the legal
ambiguities. One allegation is that Montana Cannabis, after it was
vandalized in early 2010, purchased large quantities of marijuana from
Bozeman's Big Sky Patient Care. State law doesn't explicitly permit
the transfer of marijuana among caregivers, but it doesn't preclude it
either. Of the law's many gray areas, "the caregiver-to-caregiver
exchange concept is clearly one of them," says Tom Daubert, who
co-founded Montana Cannabis before severing ties last fall, and
directs Patients and Families United, a group that lobbies the Montana
Legislature for marijuana patients' rights. He hoped the current
Legislature would clarify the rules for wholesale exchanges of marijuana.

The feds also cite tax evasion as reason for the raids, but that's a
knotty issue, too. Caregivers are prohibited from declaring on federal
tax returns expenses associated with medical marijuana operations,
leading to an artificially high tax bill or charges of tax fraud.

"If compliance with state law is the question, only state courts can
evaluate that, and I don't see why state law enforcement would have
needed this federal intrusion in order to effectively do that,"
Daubert says.

A U.S. Department of Justice memo may help explain why. The "Ogden
Memorandum," issued in October 2009 by Deputy Attorney General David
Ogden, emphasizes that prosecuting marijuana traffickers continues to
be a "core priority," but pursuing them should not focus resources "on
individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with
existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." In
particular, the memo singles out individuals with cancer and other
serious illnesses, and says prosecuting them "is unlikely to be an
efficient use of limited federal resources."

But the memo goes on to state that the "prosecution of commercial
enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit"
continues to be a priority.

"To be sure," the memo says, "claims of compliance with state or local
law may mask operations inconsistent with the terms, conditions, or
purposes of those laws, and federal law enforcement should not be
deterred by such assertions when otherwise pursuing the Department's
core enforcement priorities."

The language gives federal law enforcement plenty of leeway. It also
appears to protect state-authorized patients, but doesn't give the
same protection to people who provide them with medicine.

At the nexus of the state and federal uncertainties surrounding
medical marijuana stands Daubert. He helped author Montana's medical
marijuana law, and, because of his connection to Montana Cannabis, he
was named in the warrant to search its facility west of Helena.

"There's a feeling that our law has functionally been repealed by the
federal government," Daubert said before a March 19 rally in Missoula
to protest the federal raids. During the demonstration a couple of
hundred people marched through downtown chanting "DEA Go Away" and
waving signs with messages like, "Fix it, don't nix it." A bill moving
through the Montana Legislature would repeal the Medical Marijuana
Act, but it stalled in committee on the day of the raids.

Daubert says the search warrants were executed despite repeated
attempts by him and others in the medical marijuana community to seek
clarity from state officials about the Montana attorney general's
interpretation of the law, and how it would be applied.

"If the people involved in medical marijuana can't get an answer from
the government about how it intends to enforce the law and interpret
it, how can any of them ever be accused, even, of intending to violate
that law?" he asks.

The state attorney general's office offers no insight, saying only
that federal officials made their own determinations.

For Chris Lindsey, a Helena-based medical marijuana attorney, it boils
down to a frustrating twist.

"While people will accuse those in the industry of taking advantage of
the gray areas, it sort of feels like that's exactly what the feds
did," he says. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.