Feds raid Spokane medical marijuana dispensaries

Feds raid Spokane medical marijuana dispensaries
Outside the THC Pharmacy pot dispensary, marijuana activists chant in protest on Perry St. Thursday, April 28, 2011, in Spokane, Wash. (AP Photo/The Spokesman-Review, Jesse Tinsley)
SEATTLE (AP) - Medical marijuana activists across Washington state decried federal raids on at least two dispensaries in Spokane on Thursday, saying they underscored the need for a dispensary licensing system that the governor has threatened to veto.

The raids came Thursday afternoon, three weeks after the top federal prosecutor in Eastern Washington, Spokane U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby, warned the 40 dispensaries in the area that they should close up shop or face federal enforcement actions.

The raids were the latest salvo from federal authorities seeking to get a handle on marijuana shops proliferating in many of the 15 states with medical cannabis laws.

Recent letters from the Justice Department to officials in several states, including Washington, Colorado, California and Montana, have warned that licensing dispensaries or marijuana grow operations would not necessarily protect them from a federal crackdown because marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to announce her final decision Friday regarding whether to veto parts of a bill passed by the Legislature that would establish such a system. The bill also would grant arrest protection to marijuana patients who agree to join a state registry.

In threatening to use her veto power, the governor cited a warning from Ormsby and Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan that state employees involved in the licensing scheme could face prosecution - a prospect that one of the state's top constitutional experts described as far-fetched in a letter to the governor on Thursday.

If the federal government wants to stop a state law from taking effect, it doesn't prosecute state officials who are enforcing the law; it sues the state and claims federal pre-emption, Hugh Spitzer, an associate professor at the University of Washington Law School, wrote.

"In effect, Jenny's and Mike's letter to you is an example of inappropriate federal 'bullying' of our state," Spitzer wrote.

About 30 activists were attending a class at the Spokane library on what to do in the event of a law enforcement raid when they learned that agents were searching the dispensaries. The activists left en masse to protest the raids, said Rachel Kurtz of the Cannabis Defense Coalition, which organized the class.

"There's some irony there," she said.

Rhonda Duncan, owner of a dispensary called Club Compassion, said about 10 agents entered her establishment with guns drawn and seized all the marijuana there - an amount she estimated at less than 10 ounces. They also ripped out about 14 of her personal plants; she said she takes marijuana for arthritis and other ailments.

"At least they didn't get my medicated enchilada dinner," she said. "I'll be open again tomorrow. I'll be right here."

Duncan said Club Compassion is a nonprofit organization. She said she expected activists to protest again on Friday.

The other raided dispensary was THC Pharmacy.

Tom Rice, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Spokane, confirmed that law enforcement actions were being carried out at least one dispensary. He declined to provide further information, citing the ongoing investigation. He said he did not know of any arrests being made.

Washington voters passed the state's medical marijuana law in 1998. It states that authorized patients should either grow their own marijuana or designate a caregiver to grow it for them. The law is silent on the topic of dispensaries.

Doug Honig, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said confusion over what's allowed and what's not will only get worse if the governor vetoes the bill.

"Today's raids in Spokane underline the need for the governor to sign the medical marijuana reform bill passed by the Legislature," he said. "Authorized patients need safe access to their medicine, and law enforcement need clear guidance on what is allowed in terms of dispensaries."