HELENA – Federal agents with guns drawn raided up to a dozen medical marijuana operations across Montana on Monday, the same a day that a bill to repeal the state’s medical marijuana law stalled in a Senate committee.
Near Helena, agents burst into Montana Cannabis’ greenhouse, where the company grows more than 1,600 plants for its four stores across the state. The greenhouse runs about half the length of a football field and is packed with marijuana plants that can be seen from U.S. Highway 12.
About 15 workers were inside the warehouse during the morning raid. Montana Cannabis employee Brett Thompson, 30, said he stepped outside to smoke a cigarette and saw agents running up the driveway.
“They came in, guns drawn, got us down on the ground and in cuffs as fast as they could,” Thompson said.
Agencies involved included the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Federal agents detained Thompson and his co-workers in handcuffs outside the greenhouse, where Lewis and Clark County sheriff’s deputies and Helena police officers stood guard. Inside, agents in DEA and FBI jackets wearing respirator masks and blue gloves yanked waist-high plants from their pots and hauled them out of sight wrapped in blue tarps.
Thompson said they questioned each worker individually and then released them, except for one worker who had an outstanding warrant.
A spokeswoman in the U.S. attorney’s office in Montana said the federal agents executed search warrants that are under seal. She declined to comment further.
Montana Cannabis co-owner Christopher Williams told The Associated Press that raids were taking place at his business’ four locations. An advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access, said at least 12 businesses were raided in six cities across the state. The DEA and U.S. attorney’s office would not confirm that number.
The warrant allows agents to take the company’s computers, data storage, products and plants, Williams said, but he wasn’t sure why the raids were taking place. His personal and business bank accounts were also frozen, he said.
“It’s strictly a political move to stop us from providing medicine to sick people,” Williams said, standing outside the fence at Montana Cannabis.
Americans for Safe Access also decried the raids as politically motivated.
“By engaging in these raids, the federal government is complicit in exploiting Montana’s current political dynamic with the aim of undermining the state’s medical marijuana law,” said executive director Steph Sherer. “Instead of letting the legislature and the people of Montana figure this out, certain hostile actors such as law enforcement and the federal government have instead chosen to obstruct the democratic process.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-6 to reject House Speaker Mike Milburn’s House Bill 161. Republican Committee Chairman Sen. Terry Murphy said the panel will look into creating a reform bill to tighten regulation of the industry.
Barbara Trego, who works at the Montana Cannabis warehouse but was at the Capitol for the hearing, said she received word of the raid before the vote. She said some of the people who use the company’s marijuana are cancer patients and she feared what would happen to them if the operation shut down.
“We weren’t trying to hide anything. Our windows are open. Our door was open,” she said. “We’ve got patients that could die just by what’s happened today.”
The raid caused traffic to slow as people passing by tried to ascertain what was happening. One man in a minivan honked his horn and shouted out the window, “Thank you, Helena Police Department! It’s about time!”
Williams said of the 1,680 plants inside the greenhouse near Helena, 480 were flowering plants that produce about 5 ounces of marijuana each. He said he sells an ounce for $190 — meaning approximately $456,000 worth of marijuana was confiscated from that one location.
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