Up in smoke

Federal government clashes with county over small medical marijuana garden

SMOKED OUT <br>Diane Monson, who holds a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana for back spasms, read the text of Prop. 215 to federal drug agents as they hacked her six marijuana plants from the ground last week.

Diane Monson, who holds a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana for back spasms, read the text of Prop. 215 to federal drug agents as they hacked her six marijuana plants from the ground last week.

Photo by Tom Angel

Don’t tread on me: Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced legislation last year that would repeal federal laws that restrict the states’ rights to allow medical marijuana use. The legislation would also reclassify marijuana from a Schedule 1 narcotic to a Schedule II drug, a change that would recognize that there are valid medical uses for marijuana. The bill is still being discussed.

When the federal drug agents asked Diane Monson where her marijuana plants were last week, she didn’t hesitate to tell them.

Why should she? She had a doctor’s recommendation to smoke pot (to relieve chronic back spasms), and, with just six marijuana plants growing in her yard, was well within Butte County’s guidelines for medicinal possession. Monson never had a problem before. She’s a peaceful person and was making, of all things, a batch of granola when the police arrived.

But she only thought she was safe.

As it turns out, the Butte County sheriff’s deputies who searched her Oroville foothills house last Thursday really didn’t have a problem with her small crop. But the federal drug agents who assisted them certainly did. And that’s where the problem came up.

“If the [feds] weren’t there, we’d have left the plants,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Jerry Smith. “We’re not out to bother with small medicinal grows like that.”

Even so, and against the pleadings of Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency agents ripped Monson’s plants out of the ground. The sheriff’s deputies, Monson said, gave her five minutes to harvest what she could of the plants before the DEA agents took them.

As the feds hacked the plants from the ground, Monson said she read them the entire text of Prop. 215.

“I thought they might need to hear it,” she said. “I couldn’t believe they were taking the plants. I mean, this is just so against what the will of the people of the state of California is. I wasn’t doing anything against the law.”

Monson is right—partially. She wasn’t doing anything against state law, but her small marijuana garden was completely illegal in the eyes of the federal government. And increasingly, if you get busted on marijuana charges—whether medical cultivation or medical possession—depends on who does the bust.

If it’s the county, at least in Butte County and you’re growing fewer than six plants, you’re most likely in the clear. But if it’s the feds, you’re in trouble.

In a way, Monson is lucky. Because she had only six plants, she probably won’t face any federal charges. So why seize the plants in the first place, especially since she’s a medicinal user? That’s the question DA Ramsey asked of U.S. Attorney John K. Vincent, who authorized the seizure.

“I was using words like ‘wrong headed’ and ‘stupid’ and ‘high handed,’ when I was talking to [Vincent] about it,” Ramsey said. “I was very angry about it, when [Monson] was squarely within 215.”

Ramsey was notified of the bust while the sheriff’s deputies and DEA agents were already at Monson’s house. They were there because Monson and her husband were the original owners of and held the note on a Berry Creek house where sheriff’s deputies found a large, sophisticated marijuana grow this spring. The buyers of the home made their payments on time every month, Monson said, and they never suspected that anything illegal was going on in the house.

Because of the size of the Berry Creek grow, the federal government is prosecuting the case (there’ve been two arrests), and that’s why the DEA agents accompanied the sheriff’s deputies to Monson’s house for a search.

When he was notified of the search, Ramsey acknowledges that he pleaded with the feds to leave the plants alone. Monson wasn’t breaking state law, he said, so why bother?

“I was told that [the federal government’s] policy is to not recognize any medical excuse for marijuana,” Ramsey said. “… I was very angry that they were going to [take the plants] and questioned the necessity of it. I told him this was going to bring bad publicity, and [Vincent] said he’d take the heat, but the plants needed to be taken and destroyed.”

Vincent didn’t return phone calls asking for comment.

California isn’t the only state trying to make sense of dichotomous state and federal marijuana laws.

Twelve states (California among them) have reduced penalties for possessing a small amount of marijuana to mere fines, and this fall Nevadans will decide at the polls if they want to legalize and tax marijuana. Clearly, the states are becoming more lax about marijuana, but the federal government seems determined to maintain its illegality.

The resulting confusion about jurisdiction has all but turned Prop. 215 into a Trojan horse. When county law enforcement officers are prevented from arresting growers who use Prop. 215 as a defense, all they have to do is call in the DEA.

The tension between state and federal law is almost sure to lead to a legal showdown sometime in the future, but in Butte County it appears to have begun already. Ramsey denied that there are more federal agents in Butte County than ever but acknowledged that he’s “having discussions” with them about already-blurry jurisdictional boundaries.

“They’ll probably be around less now," Ramsey said. "Because I’m pissed."