July 17, 2008

Advocates Wonder If Pot Raid Was Justified

SEATTLE _ Martin Martinez says the small, private collective and outreach group he runs from a storefront are legal, a place for medical-marijuana patients to get help growing the medicine they need to manage their pain.

One of the earliest advocates for what became a voter-approved state medical-marijuana law 10 years ago, Martinez says he hasn't handed out pot, nor grown any in his cramped office.

But Tuesday afternoon, Seattle police, armed with a search warrant, carted away marijuana and hundreds of private patient files, and tore down a wall in search of a marijuana patch that didn't exist.

King County prosecutors say the raid was justified. Martinez's neighbors have been complaining about a pervasive smell of pot, they said, so authorities need to figure out whether Martinez has been breaking the law.

But the episode has Martinez frustrated and his attorney furious. They accuse the police and prosecutors of being overzealous and refusing to honor the law that is supposed to let sick people use pot in peace. At a minimum, Martinez says, the authorities should let the whole thing blow over _ and return his stuff.

"We're trying desperately to be legal, to stay alive and not have these conflicts," Martinez said. "Science and law have to come to terms, because the doctors are recommending cannabis and the police have got to get on the same page."

Martinez, 48, suffered severe neurological damage in a motorcycle accident in 1986. He later became one of the first people in King County to use medical necessity as a defense against prosecution for using marijuana.

In 1998, he helped promote the medical-marijuana initiative that voters approved overwhelmingly. It allows people with certain serious ailments to use marijuana if authorized by a physician.

For the past four years or so, he has operated Lifevine _ a private collective of patients who work together to grow their own medical marijuana _ and Cascadia NORML, a public-outreach organization that provides ID cards to medical-marijuana patients so they can show police that they have a legal right. He said the groups used three different locations in the U District on Northeast 55th Street and never had any problems.

In June, Martinez moved into the storefront on Northeast 50th Street.

One nearby business owner, who asked that her name not be published because she's concerned someone might retaliate, said the building immediately filled with the smell of pot. She said she hoped "the problem would just go away," but it didn't. So she and other neighbors complained to police.

Tuesday afternoon, Seattle police bicycle officers entered Martinez's office after smelling pot in various parts of the building. They called for backup and called prosecutors to obtain a search warrant.

According to Martinez, the police seized 12 ounces of marijuana buds and a large container of the less-potent leaf called "shake," which belonged to him and four other patients who happened to be there. And the police took 500 confidential patient files containing people's medical records and medical-marijuana prescriptions, Martinez said.

Martinez said one officer became convinced that Martinez was growing a garden in a secret room, so he ripped down part of a wall.

No plants were found. Martinez wasn't arrested. No charges have been filed.

"I'm just hopping mad," said Douglas Hiatt, Martinez's attorney, who arrived at the office during the search and called a deputy prosecutor to try to talk her out of executing the warrant. "It's stupid and was totally preventable."

Hiatt said Martinez is "super responsible" and makes sure he follows the letter of the law.

"I'd like for them to give him his stuff back and compensate him for anything they broke," Hiatt said. "If they decide to go forward with this (and file charges), we're going to have a real fight."

But Mark Larson, the chief criminal deputy for the King County Prosecutor's Office, said an investigation is warranted to determine whether Martinez was operating within the bounds of the state law.

"We're certainly aware people have a right to use medical marijuana," Larson said. "But that doesn't include dispensing, and it doesn't include possessing unlimited quantities."

State laws don't specify legal amounts or ways medical marijuana can be dispensed to others, he said. The state Legislature last year ordered the Health Department to establish maximum amounts each patient may possess, but the department's proposals are still being debated.

"We'd love to have these issues clarified so that people who need it get it, and people who operate outside the rules risk prosecution," Larson said.

The business owner who complained about the smell said she didn't know until after Tuesday's bust that Martinez's office was being used by medical-marijuana patients.

The woman said she's highly allergic to marijuana and suffered headaches and dizziness. She said the smell was warding away some of her customers.

She said she suspected someone was growing pot in the three-story building, which houses a mix of businesses and apartments.

"It sucks they are sick and that they have to take medical marijuana _ I wouldn't wish that on anyone," she said. "But it sucks that they're affecting an entire building."

Martinez said Wednesday that he had no idea the smell was so pervasive.

"I'm really sorry. We didn't want to bother anyone," he said. "We're a very private group, which is why it doesn't say 'medical marijuana' on the door.

"We've tried to keep to ourselves."


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