Pubdate: Thu, 13 Aug 2015
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Author: Edmundo Carrillo


Spokesman: Marijuana Is 'Still Illegal Under Federal Law'

SANTA FE - Medical marijuana is legal in New Mexico, but the federal 
Drug Enforcement Administration seized and destroyed numerous pot 
plants from a licensed dispensary in Santa Fe after a recent 
explosion burned two employees.

The Santa Fe police asked the DEA to help investigate after the blast 
at the NewMexiCann Natural Medicine dispensary in Santa Fe on July 
23. Two employees were seriously burned as they were using a process 
that involves soaking marijuana in butane and then using propane heat 
to extract THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, to produce concentrated hash oil.

Eduardo Chavez, a spokesman for the DEA, said agents acted in 
accordance with federal law when they took the pot plants.

"Right now we're following very specific protocol with how we handle 
medical marijuana investigations," Chavez said. "When we showed up, 
we helped with what we could, but (marijuana) is still illegal under 
federal law, and we had to act in accordance with federal law. We're 
not lawmakers, but we enforce the laws that go forward."

Police Lt. Andrea Dobyns said the DEA was brought in on the explosion 
investigation for safety reasons and to help secure the NewMexiCann 
lab on San Mateo Lane because this was the first incident of its kind 
that the SFPD has dealt with and the DEA is "trained in these matters."

The day of the blast, Dobyns said, the DEA was the only agency the 
police could find to help secure the building. "When we called them 
in, it was all about safety," Dobyns said. "(Officers) were concerned 
that the extractor was still leaking. We were still believing that it 
was unsafe. The last thing on officers' minds was marijuana. It was 
all about safety. No one else that was called was able to assist."

She also said it was her understanding DEA agents would not have 
taken any plants if everything in the lab was in working order. 
"That's how it was explained to me," she said.

Mayor Javier Gonzales, who supports legalizing marijuana, provided 
the Journal with a written statement when asked about the city police 
calling in the DEA. "We've made it clear what direction Santa Fe is 
moving in," Gonzales said. "I fully support the state's Medical 
Marijuana program and we don't want to throw any more taxpayer 
dollars at locking up people for possessing small amounts of 
marijuana for personal recreational use."

Last year, the Santa Fe City Council passed a marijuana 
decriminalization measure that gives SFPD officers the option of 
issuing $25, noncriminal city citations for possession of an ounce or 
less of pot.

"But federally, this is still a gray area," Gonzales said, "and as 
long as that discrepancy exists you're going to have situations like 
this. I haven't spoken to the former chief (Eric Garcia, who resigned 
as police chief days after the explosion) about the decision to 
notify the DEA, so I can't speculate to the thinking there.

"In the meantime, we're proactively reaching out to other 
dispensaries and working on education that can help prevent this kind 
of tragedy from happening again. I believe our policy is the much 
more progressive, forwardthinking policy, and I hope that Congress 
can catch up, and catch up quickly so that small businesses in Santa 
Fe that are operating legally under state and local law can be secure 
in the knowledge that their livelihood won't be put at risk."

DEA 'overzealous'

Emily Kaltenbach, state director of the New Mexico Drug Policy 
Alliance, said, "We definitely question why the DEA pulled the 
plants. It had nothing to do with the accident.

"The DEA seems to be overzealous when it comes to these kinds of issues."

She noted that federal legislation passed as part of a budget bill 
earlier this year was supposed to limit enforcement against 
dispensaries and users of medical pot. But recent news reports, 
including by The Washington Post, say the U.S. Department of Justice 
is interpreting the measure as merely preventing the DOJ from trying 
to stop states from implementing medical marijuana laws and doesn't 
necessarily prevent enforcement actions against individuals or entities.

Nicholas Montoya, 29, and Aaron Smith, 28, were badly burned in the 
explosion at NewMexiCann. Smith is in satisfactory condition at 
University of New Mexico Hospital, and Montoya has been upgraded from 
critical to serious condition.

NewMexiCann proprietor Len Goodman referred questions about the pot 
plant seizure to the business's attorney, Marc Lowry, who did not 
return phone messages from the Journal. An attorney for the Cannabis 
Producers of New Mexico, which includes several medical pot 
providers, had no comment.

The New Mexico Department of Health oversees the state's medical 
marijuana program. A spokesman for the department, Kenny Vigil, did 
not directly address the DEA's seizure of pot plants from a licensed 
New Mexico producer.

"The Department of Health is not the investigating agency in this 
incident; however, as we have stated in the past, the department will 
cooperate with investigators," Vigil said in an email.
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