HELENA – Medical marijuana businesses have been targeted as part of an 18-month federal investigation into large-scale trafficking of the drug, with federal agents executing 26 search warrants in 13 Montana cities and towns, the U.S. attorney’s office said Tuesday.
No charges have been filed, but owners of the businesses raided on Monday say marijuana plants, computers and cell phones were seized, and in some instances, bank accounts were frozen.
Montana’s U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement Tuesday that the pot businesses are allegedly involved in a conspiracy to manufacture and distribute the drug and evade currency reporting requirements. Along with the 26 search warrants, civil seizure warrants were issued for financial institutions in Bozeman, Helena and Kalispell, seeking up to $4 million.
“Twenty-six search warrants were carried out yesterday where there is probable cause that the premises were involved in illegal and large-scale trafficking of marijuana. When criminal networks violate federal laws those involved will be prosecuted,” U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter said in the statement.
It was not immediately clear how many individual businesses were searched, as some businesses have more than one location in the state.
Cotter’s spokeswoman declined to say whether the raids and investigation targeted specific businesses that were violating both federal law and Montana’s medical marijuana laws, or whether it represented a shift in policy for the Department of Justice.
In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder said federal agents would target only medical marijuana distributors “who violate both federal and state law.” That statement led to an industry boom in Montana, which legalized medical marijuana by voter initiative in 2004.
Montana now has more than 28,000 registered users and more than 4,800 distributors, called “caregivers” in Montana.
Cotter said individuals with illnesses who are in compliance with state law are not the focus of the investigation.
Montana’s medical marijuana law is vague when it comes to the regulation of medical pot distributors.
“The only legal responsibility, in reference to caregivers, accorded to the Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Medical Marijuana program, is making sure the caregivers have not been convicted of a felony crime,” said state health department spokesman Chuck Council in an e-mail. “Any legal issues concerning sales of plants, seeds paraphernalia, etc., rests with local law enforcement and the judicial system.”
Council said he couldn’t comment on the federal raids.
The raids came as a legislative committee voted against a bill to repeal the state’s medical marijuana law. Additional legislation has been proposed to create stricter regulations for the industry.
Search warrants were executed at premises at Belgrade, Big Sky, Billings, Bozeman, Columbia Falls, Dillon, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell, Miles City, Missoula, Olney and Whitefish, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
The warrants were issued on belief that the businesses are involved in criminal enterprises that have violated the federal Controlled Substances Act, the statement said. Specific violations include:
— Manufacture of marijuana.
— Possession with intent to distribute marijuana.
— Distribution of marijuana.
— Conspiracy to commit the offenses above.
— Structuring or assisting in structuring any transaction to evade currency reporting requirements.
Spokeswoman Victoria Francis declined to answer any questions beyond the statement, including whether a grand jury had been convened to investigate the allegations.
At least one medical marijuana provider, Christopher Williams of Montana Cannabis, said he was bracing for possible grand jury indictments after federal agents raided his four stores and confiscated more than 1,600 plants at his greenhouse outside of Helena.
Despite the possible charges, Williams said he planned to obtain new marijuana plants from some of his business’ registered patients and resume operations by the end of the week.
“We have patients that we have had for over a year now . who can give us two or three extra plants to get us started again,” he said. “We’re still going to take care of our patients.”
But the business will first have to fix lights and heaters that were damaged in the raid, he said.
Mark Frisbie, a Great Falls attorney who has represented medical marijuana providers, said he would advise against medical marijuana businesses that were raided to restart operations, even though he believes the federal raids were wrong.
“They’re gambling with their freedom. I wouldn’t want them to do that — what if they came and got busted again?” Frisbie said.
Frisbie cited a federal statute that says federal law does not trump state law unless there is a positive conflict between the two laws. Because the Controlled Substance Act deals with recreational use and medical marijuana laws are for medical usage, Frisbie said he believes there is no conflict to justify the raids.
But, he added, “If (the U.S. attorney has) evidence selling to non-patients or transporting marijuana across state lines, they’re going to be screwed. That will firmly take it out of the state law and put it into the federal law.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.