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Medical marijuana being targeted by criminals

Steve Sarich stands in a room used to grow medical marijuana in his Kirkland, Wash., home Tuesday.  (Associated Press)
Steve Sarich stands in a room used to grow medical marijuana in his Kirkland, Wash., home Tuesday. (Associated Press)

SAN FRANCISCO – Patients, growers and clinics in some of the 14 states that allow medical marijuana are falling victim to robberies, home invasions, shootings and even murders at the hands of pot thieves.

There have been dozens of cases in recent months alone. The issue received more attention this week after a prominent medical marijuana activist in a Seattle suburb nearly killed a robber in a shootout – the eighth time thieves had targeted his pot-growing operation.

Critics say the heists and holdups prove that marijuana and crime are inseparable, though marijuana advocates contend that further legalization is the answer. News of crimes related to medical marijuana comes at an awkward time for California and Washington advocates who are pushing to pass ballot measures to allow all adults, not just the chronically ill, to possess the drug.

“Whenever you are dealing with drugs and money, there is going to be crime. If people think otherwise, they are very naive,” said Scott Kirkland, the police chief in El Cerrito, Calif., and a vocal critic of his state’s voter-approved medical marijuana law.

Activists and law enforcement officials say it is difficult to get an accurate picture of crimes linked to medical marijuana because many victims don’t notify the police for fear of drawing unwanted attention to their own activities. But the California Police Chiefs Association used press clippings to compile 52 medical marijuana-related crimes – including seven homicides – from April 2008 to March 2009.

There also is plenty of anecdotal evidence:

•A man in Washington state was beaten to death last week with what is believed to be a crowbar after confronting an intruder on the rural property where he was growing cannabis to treat painful back problems.

•Medical marijuana activist Steve Sarich exchanged gunfire with intruders in his home Monday in Kirkland, Wash., shooting and critically injuring one of them.

•A respected magazine editor was killed in 2007 by robbers who targeted his Northern California home for marijuana and money after hearing that his teenage son was growing pot with a doctor’s approval.

•Robbers killed a security guard at a Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensary in 2008.

Police and marijuana opponents say the violence is further proof that the proliferation of medical marijuana carries problems that would worsen if pot is legalized or decriminalized.

Pot activists say the opposite: that prohibition breeds crime and legalization would solve the problem. They also say the robberies have exposed the need for more regulation of medical marijuana laws in states like California, Washington and Colorado.

Marijuana advocates say there is adequate regulation in New Mexico, where officials say there have been no violent medical marijuana robberies.

Medical cannabis is primarily grown by a small number of regularly inspected nonprofits in New Mexico, and the state keeps their names and locations confidential. The law includes extensive requirements covering security, quality control, staff training and education about the use of the drug.

Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the pro-pot Drug Policy Alliance, said that while the robberies are disturbing, there is no way to conclude that legalized marijuana breeds any more crime than convenience stores, banks or homes stocked with expensive jewelry and electronics.

In fact, Denver police said the 25 robberies and burglaries targeting medical marijuana in the city in the last half of 2009 amounted to a lower crime rate than what banks or liquor stores there suffered.

“I think what we are seeing is a spate of crime that reflects the novelty of medical marijuana cultivation and distribution through unregulated means,” Gutwillig said.


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