July 31, 2008

Feds Get Involved in Local Drug Case

By Natalie Singer, The Seattle Times

Jul. 31--One week after Seattle police returned hundreds of patient files and a computer hard drive taken in a raid from a University District medical marijuana cooperative and local prosecutors declined to press charges, federal drug agents have gotten involved in the case.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents on Friday took control from Seattle police of about 12 ounces of medical marijuana and about 2 pounds of less-potent leaves seized from co-op head Martin Martinez, according to the DEA. Martinez operates Lifevine, a private collective of patients who work together to grow their own medical marijuana.

Martinez's lawyer, Douglas Hiatt, had asked the Police Department to return the marijuana, arguing that Martinez had a legal right to it under Washington's medical marijuana law. However, because marijuana is illegal under federal law, U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan asked the DEA to take it and destroy it.

"Accordingly, the DEA has seized and processed the marijuana for destruction; that concludes this matter," the agency said Wednesday in a statement released by Seattle-based spokeswoman Jodie Underwood.

Hiatt said Wednesday that Seattle police attorney Leo Poort had notified him in a letter that, "At the request or demand of the U.S. attorney's office, the marijuana seized by the Seattle Police Department ... pursuant to a search warrant issued by a local court ... was transferred Friday to the Drug Enforcement Administration."

A call to Poort Wednesday afternoon was not returned.

Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle, said there was nothing unusual about the federal involvement.

"Law enforcement destroys drugs in the normal course of business all the time," Langlie said.

But the DEA's involvement in the case alarmed Martinez, who had begun to relax after the initial July 15 bust and was focusing on changing the location of his Northeast 50th Street office after neighbors complained of smelling pot, said Hiatt.

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 Prosecutor Dan Satterberg later declined to press charges, and most of the items were returned.

Martinez suffers from neurological damage from a motorcycle accident and was one of the first people in King County to use medical necessity as a defense against prosecution for using marijuana. He helped pass the 1998 law and also runs Cascadia NORML, a public-outreach organization that provides ID cards to medical-marijuana patients so they can show police they have a legal right.

Hiatt said he had not heard directly from the U.S. attorney's office or the DEA. But he called the seizure the latest in a series of assaults by the government on Washington patients' legal right to grow and use medical marijuana, established by a 1998 medical-marijuana initiative that voters approved overwhelmingly. The law allows people with certain serious ailments to grow their own marijuana and use it if authorized by a physician.

"Washington voters wanted this. It's a compassionate thing, and the federal government should butt out," Hiatt said. "The DEA should return the marijuana to the Seattle Police Department and leave us alone."

Information from Times staff reporter Nick Perry and The Associated Press is included in this report.


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