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Wednesday, December 8,2010

The DEA is in town

More questions than answers remain after a federal bust of medical-marijuana growing facilities in Okemos

by Andy Balaskovitz
Five properties and at least 400 plants. That was the target and the take of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency on Nov. 30 at various addresses in Okemos used for growing medical marijuana.

United States District Attorney Rene Shekmer, of the Western District in Grand Rapids, confirmed “over 400” plants were taken — 10 times what was previously reported.


Initial reports also said only three facilities were raided.


“Under federal law, there is no exemption for medical marijuana. Under Michigan law, there are limits and rules you have to follow,” Shekmer said.


“As a broad brush, it does not appear they were (state-compliant) because of the number of plants,” she added.


However, the investigation is ongoing, “final conclusions need to be made” and no charges are for certain against the caregivers and property owners. “Until we review all of the evidence, we are not making a determination,” she said.


The amount of plants confiscated at each location is also undetermined. Growing equipment was also confiscated.


However, Ryan Basore, one of the caregivers who leased space to other caregivers at 2360 Jolly Oak Road, said there were enough qualified growers for the total amount of plants taken. He claimed the DEA is lumping all of the properties together as “one take.”


“If you go around and raid individual warehouses and add them all up, yeah you’ll find a lot of plants,” said Basore, who also owns Capital City Caregivers at 2208 E. Michigan Ave. in Lansing. He estimated there were 10 caregivers operating among the five locations, which includes 2933 and 2935 Jolly Road. The two other locations have not been confirmed.


“There were definitely not 400 plants in one spot,” he said. “Why did they raid us? I have no idea.”


Basore told City Pulse and other media outlets last week that about 40 plants had been confiscated at one of the locations.


Basore said the raids are separate from his business enterprise in Lansing, which was not raided.


Dave Clark, an Okemos attorney representing one of the caregivers at 2360 Jolly Oak, whose name he declined to disclose, is surprised like Basore. He arrived at the scene around 11 p.m. as the raid was going on.


He said each caregiver had his own separate “space” at the facility.


“We were surprised there was even a warrant. Everything inside was legal under state law,” Clark said. “I’m sure it was 100 percent legal.”


Under state law, a caregiver can grow 12 plants per patient and may have five patients. If the caregiver is also a patient, he can also grow 12 plants for himself.


Unfortunately for medical marijuana growers in states where it is legal, the federal government can trump that law.


John Roberts of Saginaw had his home raided by the DEA in July. He was operating a growing facility with Stephanie Whisman at the property. Each are patients and caregivers for five other patients, which means they can have 72 plants each and up to 15 ounces — 2.5 ounces per patient — of harvested pot each. The DEA seized the plants and usable product, but that’s the last Roberts has heard from the feds.


“There is no legal situation. They have the prerogative to come back in the next few years and charge me, so I live under that threat,” he said.


But so far, he’s heard nothing about pending charges.


Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access — a marijuana advocacy group spread throughout the U.S. — has seen these types of raids happen in California and Colorado since the beginning of the George W. Bush administration. He said Roberts’ case is not unique.


“Under 50 percent of the time, they (suspects) are indicted federally,” Hermes said. The rest of the time, the feds take the product and equipment and never come back, he said.


About five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. vs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative that medical marijuana is not an acceptpable legal defense in federal court, even if it’s legal in that state. Hermes added that if there are violations of state law, they should be charged in state courts — not federal ones.


Even though U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in February 2009 that the federal government would not target businesses or growers that operate within state law, the DEA has acted otherwise.


Hermes said more than 200 federal raids on medical marijuana facilities in their respective states occurred during the Bush years. That has tapered off since Holder’s announcement, yet President Obama has nominated Bush appointee Michele Leonhart to be the head of the DEA. She has served as the acting head since 2007.


Typically, the federal government works with local law enforcement to decide how these cases proceed, depending on each one’s involvement.


Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said that his office wasn’t informed of the raids beforehand.


It is his understanding that the DEA has a certain threshold by which they choose to pursue a case, referring to Holder’s announcement. But it’s their decision to investigate any cannabis growing operations.


“The federal law says it’s illegal,” he said. “There isn’t a blanket ban on enforcing marijuana laws against people who are engaged in medical marijuana operations.”

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