Men Plead No Contest to Medical Pot Transfer

By Beacon Staff

Two men accused of an illegal medical marijuana transaction entered pleas of no contest to felony drug charges last week.

Lief Erickson and Robin Ruiz were charged with criminal possession with intent to distribute drugs after law enforcement found three pounds of marijuana and THC-infused honey in their vehicle during a traffic stop in February.

Investigators alleged that Erickson and Ruiz were delivering the marijuana to a medical marijuana provider in Great Falls.

Erickson’s attorney, Chris Lindsey of Missoula, argued that he was within his rights as a medical marijuana provider, or “caregiver,” because the Montana Medical Marijuana Act allows caregiver-to-caregiver transactions.

Erickson changed his not-guilty plea to “no contest” on Aug. 8 as part of a deal with the Flathead County Attorney’s office. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors agreed to recommend a five-year suspended sentence, during which Erickson will be on probation.

Ruiz, who changed his plea on Aug. 11, faces the same sentencing recommendations in his plea agreement.

Erickson’s and Ruiz’s cases were part of a larger case concerning medical marijuana, in which Lindsey and Kalispell attorney Timothy Baldwin attempted to clarify caregiver-to-caregiver transactions.

The complaint, filed this spring as Montana Medical Growers Association vs. (Flathead County Attorney) Ed Corrigan, sought declaratory judgment to determine that a medical marijuana caregiver can legally “deliver, transport or transfer marijuana and its paraphernalia to another caregiver” either themselves or through an agent.

Medical marijuana proponents, such as MMGA Executive Director Jim Gingery, said caregiver-to-caregiver transactions are a legitimate, necessary way for new growers to get started with plants.

The complaint also asserted that without caregiver-to-caregiver transactions, it would be impossible to fulfill the part of state law stating that caregivers can possess enough medical marijuana “in an amount that is reasonably necessary to ensure [its] uninterrupted availability.”

In interviews with the Beacon earlier this year, Lindsey said Erickson’s and Ruiz’s charges presented an opportunity in Flathead County to pursue the declaratory judgment.

However, in his July decision, District Court Judge Stewart Stadler concluded that the state medical marijuana law did not allow caregivers to provide medical pot to anyone other than their qualifying patients.

Stadler wrote that MMGA might have a case if state law was ambiguous in regard to whom a caregiver can provide medical marijuana.

“However, no such ambiguity exists; rather, the clear and unambiguous language of (the) Act permits caregivers ‘to provide marijuana only to qualifying patients who have named the applicant as caregiver,’” Stadler wrote.

“The intention of this language is straightforward,” the judge continued. “Entertaining (MMGA’s) invitation to engage in further interpretation of the Act would necessarily entail turning a blind eye to one of its explicit provisions. This the Court may not do.”

As for the assertion that caregivers must maintain an uninterrupted supply, Stadler stated there is no language in state law that specifically accepts caregiver-to-caregiver transactions as a possibility in coverage.

Lindsey sought similar declaratory judgment in Missoula County and was denied there as well. He said he would appeal the Missoula ruling in state Supreme Court.

Erickson and Ruiz are scheduled for sentencing on Oct. 20.

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