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Pot Shots

Police raid and close the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries
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Bellingham medical marijuana cooperatives were raided and five people were arrested on March 15. The cooperatives were ordered to cease operations of their businesses immediately in letters delivered by the Bellingham Police March 9, after the collectives continued operating without business registrations.

The City Attorney’s office reviewed its policy on these businesses in late 2011, and decided to no longer issue business licenses for dispensaries and co-ops of this kind. The businesses have been operating in a shadowy area of state law: Doctors may prescribe marijuana for medical purposes and patients are provided access to medical marijuana, but federal law prohibits the distribution or sale of marijuana, a controlled substance.

“This is a complicated case, but simply stated, these arrests are the result of these businesses operating in violation of Washington State and federal drug laws,” Bellingham Police Chief Todd G. Ramsay said.

Police action preempted an attempt at legal remedy by these firms. The dispensaries had planned to file an injunction, seeking relief from the threats defined by police in their March 9 letters. The injunction was set to be filed in Whatcom County courts on March 16, one day before the police raids.
 
“We thought that police would be able to contain themselves and uphold state law while we sought relief,” Seattle attorney Hilary Bricken said. Her law firm,  HarrisMoure, represents about 30 cannabis co-ops, growers, and vendors around the state, including two in Bellingham.

“It is really disappointing that the City Attorney, the police and city prosecutors could not allow the courts to do their job, and figure these issues out in a civil arena. It was unprofessional, it was unconstitutional, and it is a disservice to the people of Bellingham, and in particular to the patients,” Bricken said. “They beat us to the punch.”

Search warrants were served on the Northern Cross in downtown Bellingham, as well as KGB and The Joint dispensaries in Fairhaven. Police say they also closed two two locations in Skagit County believed to be the grow source of some of the marijuana sold at the cooperatives. Five people were arrested and booked into Whatcom County Jail facing charges of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver.

Police clim the dispensaries stocked too much marijuana. Washington state law allows a medical marijuana dispensary to have 4-1/2 lbs of cannabis inventory to serve a limit of 10 members. According to police, the three local dispensaries had a combined total of 33 lbs of inventory, serving 3,000 members.

Police recovered more than 15 pounds of marijuana from Northern Cross, 11 pounds from KGB and 7 pounds of marijuana from The Joint. In addition, a substantial amount of cash and marijuana food products were seized. At the Skagit locations, police seized more than 300 marijuana plants along with a few weapons, including handguns and a shotgun.

“The search warrants were the result of a three month investigation into the illegal distribution and manufacture of marijuana at marijuana cooperatives in Bellingham,” Bellingham Police noted in a press release. “After numerous citizen complaints regarding these organizations, police investigated and determined that these were no more than a front for illegal drug activity.  The City of Bellingham revoked the businesses registrations of the cooperatives in December due to the illegal activity.”

Police say they obtained evidence that the collectives exceeded the 10 members per dispensary allowed by law.

“Officers were told by employees of Northern Cross that they have 3000 members while the other two locations are also believed to have members well over the amount allowed by law,” Ramsay noted.

“These arrests are not about medical marijuana, these arrest are about closing down illegal criminal drug enterprises,” he said.

Bricken criticized the tactics of police and city prosecutors.

Not only did the City of Bellingham issue their cease-and-desist letters on a Friday at 4pm, she said, preventing timely legal response, but they also timed their raid just in advance of the one day of the month the civil court is closed, preventing her firm from filing a restraining order.

Bricken said her firm had planned legal action to prevent city officials and police from enforcing a constructive ban against medical cannabis in Bellingham.

“There is no collective garden law on the books, nor is there a moratorium against businesses of this kind,” Bricken said. “Basically, they’re shooting from the hip, claiming that our clients are violating state law when in fact they are not.

“The City Attorney and others are committed to one interpretation of state law that is extremely restrictive and unconstitutional,” she said. “In my opinion, that is why they raided.”

Criticizing that restrictive reading, Bricken said, “It is illogical and incorrect to assume that a law would both allow you access to something yet deny it at the same time. The collective garden model can work with a rotating patient basis system, and we believe the statute was created to promote safe access.

“We don’t want patients to have to turn to the black market for access when the statute clearly allows safe access,” she said.

The Bellingham Hearing Examiner is scheduled in April to consider city policy on the issuance of business licenses for collective gardens and medical marijuana dispensaries.

The Bellingham Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit led last week’s action and was assisted by various other units of the Bellingham Police Department, the Skagit County Inter-Local Drug Enforcement Unit, Skagit County Sheriff’s Office and Northwest Regional Drug Task Force.

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