June 28, 2009 in City

Pot’s legal ambiguity clouds enforcement

Medical marijuana law comes with slew of concerns for patients, officers
Meghann M. Cuniff meghannc@spokesman.com, (509) 459-5534
 
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On the Web: Marijuana dispensaries are cropping up across Spokane, but their legal status is hazy. Read the story at spokesman.com/tags/marijuana/.

A thief kicked in his door, ransacked his kitchen and stole his 8-ounce marijuana stash. So the victim called police.

But the difference between this Spokane man’s story and a classic stupid-criminal tale was a prescription card authorities say is easier to get in Spokane than ever.

The case, detailed in a search warrant filed this month in Spokane County District Court, illustrates the dichotomy forming between medicinal users of marijuana and law enforcement officers trained to track drug sales and arrest dealers.

“I’d never done a search warrant to try to get a guy his marijuana back before,” said Spokane police Detective Brian Cestnik, who pulled phone records this month looking for a suspect. “But here’s a guy saying ‘Hey, I’ve got a valid prescription for this stuff and it was stolen.’ ”

Police dropped the case, Cestnik said, partly because the victim asked investigators not to contact suspects, which made it difficult to pursue. Nevertheless, “We’re starting to see a lot of these home-invasion robberies,” Cestnik said. “Obviously everyone knows who has (medical marijuana cards) now.”

As more people obtain cards that allow them to possess up to a pound and a half of marijuana, police are faced with sorting the illegal from the legal, and determining if a legal user might be illegally selling.

“By and large, law enforcement officials outside of the Seattle area have not embraced medical marijuana laws with open arms,” said lawyer and civil libertarian Pat Stiley, “even though … the voters have decided to pull the sick and dying off of the battlefield of the war on drugs.”

In May, the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office agreed to pay a medical marijuana patient $2,000 for destroyed grow lights after a jury acquitted him of charges that he grew more medical marijuana than the law allows.

Spokane police still seek out marijuana dealers, and search warrants show undercover officers often patrol hydroponic gardening stores looking for suspected marijuana growers.

“The truth is there are a lot of people who use the medical marijuana as strictly a cover to continue on with illegal drug dealing,” said Spokane police Sgt. Tom Hendren of the drug investigation unit. “We attempt to do our best investigation to determine if people are actually in compliance.”

One of the most difficult aspects for law enforcement and medical marijuana users alike is the ambiguity of state law. Left unexplained in the medical marijuana law approved by voters in 1998 and adjusted later by the state Legislature, for example, is how card-carrying medical marijuana patients can obtain their supplies.

Patients are limited to 15 plants and a pound and a half of fresh marijuana at a time, and caretakers are allowed to supply marijuana to one other person.

Nothing in the law addresses how that caretaker can legally obtain seeds to grow marijuana.

“They made it so somehow along the way, someone has to break the law in order for the law to work,” said David Miller, attorney for Darren McCrea, founder of the medical marijuana support group SpoCannabis.

Police arrested McCrea for distribution of marijuana last summer, but no criminal charges have been filed.

Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor John Grasso handles most medical marijuana-related crimes. Police often consult him before pursuing a case, he said.

Grasso thinks dispensaries operating in Spokane, including Change, on Northwest Boulevard, are illegal because they provide marijuana to more than one person.

But it will take a police investigation to trigger prosecution, he said.

Stiley said police attitudes toward medical marijuana in Spokane have improved in the last few years.

But he predicted a short stay for pot shops.

“I think they’re probably going to come to a rude awakening by law enforcement,” Stiley said.


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