July 20, 2011 in City

Grand jury indicts Spokane medical marijuana dispensers

By The Spokesman-Review
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Charles Wright, operator of the marijuana dispensary the THC Pharmacy, gives a quick thumbs up to chanting cannabis activists outside his store during a raid by the Drug Enforcement Administration on April 28. Wright was indicted by a grand jury on drug charges July 20.
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The owners of two medical marijuana dispensaries in Spokane have been indicted by a federal grand jury.

Charles Wesley Wright and Jon Richard Vivian, owners of the THC Pharmacy on South Perry Street, and Jerry Wayne Laberdee and Dennis Lewis Whited, owners of Medical Herb Providers, face time in federal prison under multi-count indictments filed today in U.S. District Court.

The charges are the latest in an escalating effort by federal authorities to rein in marijuana sales in states where voters have approved its medical use.

“I think I’m more shocked than surprised,” Spokane lawyer Frank Cikutovich, who specializes in marijuana cases.

Federal authorities warned medical marijuana providers in the Spokane area in early April that they planned to enforce federal drug laws if the shops did not close immediately. Dispensaries across the county, including THC Pharmacy and Medical Herb Providers, were raided three weeks later.

The raids, Cikutovich said, “solved the problem…that one big weekend got rid of all the dispensaries and sent a message to everyone…I just don’t see the need to put more people in prison for 5, 10, 15 years for producing medicine.”

None of the suspects, who have not been arrested, could be reached for comment. Cikutovich is not officially working on any of the cases but has stayed in regular contact with members of the medical marijuana community.

“They’ve all just been laying low hoping this day wouldn’t come,” Cikutovich said.

Cikutovich said the cases will be difficult to defend because dispensers were operating in the open under the assumption federal authorities weren’t interested.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said federal authorities won’t prosecute medical marijuana cases that are complying with state law, but Washington’s medical marijuana law is ambiguous about dispensaries, and an effort to clarify it in the state Legislature was vetoed by Gov. Chris Gregoire because of concerns that state employees could be prosecuted under federal drug laws.

Meanwhile, dozens of dispensaries began operating in the Spokane area, some near busy intersections and with heavy advertising.

“It’s going to be difficult to have a defense when they were openly doing it,” Cikutovich said. “Somebody’s got to get creative with it to save their butts on this one.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Rice, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined comment.

Also indicted on Wednesday was Russell Thomas Blake, who is accused of growing more than 100 marijuana plants at his property at 3942 F. Garden Spot Road near Loon Lake. Federal authorities searched the property on April 28. Blake also is charged with distribution of marijuana and possession with intent to distribute marijuana for incidents on April 20 and April 21.

Blake also is charged with maintaining a drug-involved premise, which carries up to 20 years in prison.

Wright and Vivian face the same penalty if found guilty of maintaining a drug-involved premise near a school. THC Pharmacy was located at 1108 S. Perry St. - which is less than 1,000 feet from Grant Elementary School.

Wright and Vivian are also charged with distribution of marijuana near a school, possession with intent to distribute marijuana near a school, manufacture of marijuana near a school. Each charge carries not less than a year and no more than 10 years.

Laberdee and Whited, who has said he began using medical marijuana after losing his leg in a crash in 2009, are charged with distribution of marijuana, which carries up to five yeas in prison; manufacture of marijuana, which carries five to 40 years; and maintaining a drug-involved premise.

The five defendants also face a forfeiture charge that calls for them to forfeit any property or proceeds derived from their illegal operations.

Cikutovich said the penalties could increase once federal authorities calculate the amount of marijuana allegedly sold and possessed.

He expects federal officials to use business records seized from the dispensaries to quantify how much marijuana was sold.

“The businesses were trying to be as professional as possible and keep records. Unfortunately those records are now being used as exhibit A,” Cikutovich said. “They basically collected evidence for the government to go in and take.”

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