Pubdate: Fri, 24 Jun 2011 Source: Helena Independent Record (MT) Copyright: 2011 Helena Independent Record Contact: http://helenair.com/app/contact/letters_to_editor/ Website: http://helenair.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/1187 Author: Eve Byron, Independent Record MEDICAL MARIJUANA CAREGIVERS CHARGED BY FEDS Three Helena men were arraigned in federal court in Missoula Thursday on 25 counts, including charges of manufacturing, distributing and possessing marijuana, as well as money laundering and conspiracy. Jason Burns, 38, Joshua Schultz, 38, and Jesse Leland, 40, were indicted by a grand jury this week and face a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, and up to 40 years, as well as up to a $5 million fine, if convicted of the charges. A trial date is set for Aug. 8 in Helena in front of U.S. District Court Senior Judge Charles Lovell. All three defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges, and were released with special conditions, including the need to check in regularly with their attorneys. The three men owned nurseries and businesses in Helena, Belgrade and Great Falls, known as Queen City Caregivers and Natural Medicine, which were part of statewide raids of medical marijuana businesses operating in Montana. After an 18-month investigation, 26 search warrants targeting seven medical marijuana businesses were executed March 14, with federal agents looking for evidence of large-scale trafficking as well as tax evasion. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Fehr declined to say whether any other indictments are pending, saying that information isn't released until individuals are arraigned. Montana voters approved a ballot initiative in 2004 allowing for medical marijuana use, and currently more than 30,000 residents hold cards that allow them to legally possess the drug in the state. The 2011 Legislature passed measures to try to curtail its use, saying they feared it was being abused by youths. That legislation is currently being litigated. While marijuana is considered a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government, a memo by former Deputy Attorney General David Ogden seemed to imply that the Department of Justice had decided that prosecuting the medical marijuana industry was a low priority and the number of large marijuana nurseries and distribution organizations exploded in Montana. However, the so-called Ogden memo went on to state that "prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority of the Department," which many say led to the Montana raids. "Today's indictment is a step toward ensuring the alleged large-scale distribution of the addictive and dangerous gateway drug of marijuana (is) curtailed in the state of Montana," Montana's U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter, said in a statement. "I am grateful to all of the agencies and attorneys throughout the state that are involved in the investigation and prosecution of this case." The indictment charges the men with one count each of conspiracy and marijuana manufacturing; three counts of distribution and possession of marijuana; and 20 counts of money laundering. The money laundering counts range in amounts from $1,000 to $19,985, and total $233,510. They seem to involve transfers by Schultz from one bank account to another. The indictment alleges that at least $1,364,000 was received by the men in exchange for the manufacture and distribution of controlled substances, or is traceable to those actions, and wants the money forfeited. The government also is asking for the forfeiture of a 2001 Mercedes E320; $7,135 in currency seized from the Great Falls business; $2,829 in a bank account; and any other money or funds credited to Burns' Queen City Caregivers bank account. The business operated at 1236 Birch St. off of Montana Avenue in Helena. - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.