U.S. attorney: Only flagrant pot shops targeted

U.S. attorney: Only flagrant pot shops targeted
SEATTLE (AP) - Following the biggest raid on pot dispensaries since voters approved the state's medical marijuana law in 1998, Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said Wednesday her office doesn't have the ability or inclination to shut down every dispensary in Western Washington - but authorities won't turn a blind eye to flagrant violations, either.

"Some people have said the law's confusing," Durkan said. "There's nothing confusing about the illegal conduct they were doing. Everyone knows you can't sell pounds of marijuana out the back door to someone who's not sick. You can't sell Oxycontin pills."

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided 10 storefront dispensaries Tuesday, including several in Seattle, where law enforcement officials have taken a lenient view of medical marijuana grows and dispensaries. Search warrant affidavits suggested the shops were fronts for illicit drug dealing and revealed that agents were looking for evidence of drug conspiracies, money laundering and guns.

The raids came at a time when several prominent residents of the state - including two of Durkan's predecessors as U.S. attorney, John McKay and Kate Pflaumer, and the former head of the FBI's Seattle office, Charlie Mandigo - have endorsed an initiative that would allow adults 21 and over to buy marijuana for recreational use at state-sanctioned stores.

The DEA also helped coordinate raids by the Thurston and Pierce county sheriffs' offices on nine other dispensaries in their counties. Seventeen people were arrested in Thurston County and booked for investigation of marijuana possession with intent to distribute.

One of the shops hit in the federal raids, Seattle Medicinal Clinic in Tacoma, was being run by a man still on probation after serving more than three years on a federal conviction for marijuana distribution conspiracy, agents said. He was arrested and several bags of blue pills believed to be Percocet were seized at the dispensary.

In another case, agents said, the Seattle Cannabis Co-op sold 5 pounds of marijuana to a confidential informant for $11,000 in a monitored transaction. When told that the informant wanted to sell the drugs in the Midwest, the co-op's employee recommended some lousy weed on the grounds that tokers there wouldn't know the difference.

Some marijuana activists rallied at the federal building in downtown Seattle to protest the raids, but others found them - especially the federal ones - hard to argue. Seattle medical marijuana attorney Douglas Hiatt said that while he advocates legalization and believes the raids were a waste of resources, some dispensaries have flouted the rules.

"It looks like the federal part of this is targeted at behavior that would be illegal under state or federal law," he said. "It's a waste of resources and I think it has a chilling effect on others, but I don't think you can be disingenuous and say you don't have to follow the rules."

Washington voters approved a medical marijuana law in 1998, and in recent years the dispensaries have proliferated across the state. Earlier this year, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed legislation that would have created a state system for licensing medical marijuana dispensaries over concern that it would require state workers to violate the federal Controlled Substances Act by inspecting marijuana grow operations, among other things.

The state nevertheless continues trying to make dispensaries pay business and sales taxes. The Department of Revenue says that according to its most recent figures, 13 dispensaries - a tiny fraction of those operating in Washington - paid nearly $30,000 in taxes between July 2010 and July 2011.

The city of Seattle responded to the governor's veto by passing legislation to regulate medical marijuana shops like any other business - requiring that they be licensed, pay taxes and fees, obtain food-handling permits if they sell marijuana cookies, and follow all other regulations such as land-use codes.

Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess, a former police officer and chairman of the Council's Public Safety committee, said the federal action would not deter city officials from continuing to license medical pot shops and explore ways to implement zoning rules for them.

"We're taking cautious steps to bring more clarity and make sure there's proper regulation and control. The federal authorities made it very clear that these individuals who were the target of the federal investigation were operating well outside the medical provisions that were in place," he said.

Durkan said she believes many medical marijuana patients are faking their conditions.

"Most people have known someone in their life who has suffered from a very debilitating illness," she said. "We understand that if a doctor determines there's something that can give them comfort, they and their family want the ability to do that. But I think it's a pretty small population when you're looking at the scope of who's using what they call medical marijuana."

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Associated Press writer Chris Grygiel contributed.