At least 14 Puget Sound medical-marijuana dispensaries were swept up in a long-expected law-enforcement raid that ranks as the largest since the state approved medical marijuana.
The coordinated raids across Thurston, Pierce and King counties targeted dispensaries that, according to law enforcement, were hiding behind the medical-marijuana law to make illegal sales, in some cases to people who were not patients. More than a dozen people were arrested.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle said the raids in Seattle were part of four ongoing investigations.
“State laws of compassion were never intended to protect brash criminal conduct that masquerades as medical treatment,” U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a statement. It said one operator was arrested on suspicion of violating terms of his supervised release for a prior felony conviction.
Special Agent in Charge Matthew Barnes of the Drug Enforcement Administration ( DEA ), which led the Seattle raids, said they targeted those who cultivated and sold marijuana while exploiting state law “to satisfy their own personal greed.”
Neighbors to the Seattle Cannabis Co-op in Crown Hill saw officers in DEA jackets and carrying a battering ram and shield swarm the dispensary just after 11 a.m. At least one employee was seen in handcuffs, though it was unclear if arrests were made.
On Capitol Hill, the Seattle Cross dispensary also was raided in the morning.
A search-warrant affidavit for those locations – and for homes where marijuana was being grown – accused both dispensaries of drug dealing and money laundering.
In federal court documents accompanying the search warrants, officers described a confidential informant buying 5 pounds of marijuana for $11,000 from the Seattle Cannabis Co-op.
The co-owner of Seattle Cross, according to an affidavit, posted a photo on his Facebook page showing three duffel bags of cash and a caption, “This gonna take all night to count … lol.”
Deposits in the Seattle Cross bank account totaled $850,979 in a year.
City Attorney Pete Holmes said he didn’t know in advance of the DEA action, and Durkan briefed him over the phone in the afternoon. His office noted the dispensaries raided were a very small number of the more than 100 in town.
Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said his agency was not involved.
In Thurston and Pierce counties, local investigations led police to five dispensaries in each county.
Ed Troyer, spokesman for the Pierce County sheriff, said the targets were carefully chosen and left untouched some medical-marijuana dispensaries that “were operating under state law.”
The five targeted in Pierce County had a “variety of issues” and had been warned they were out of compliance with changes to the medical-marijuana law that took effect in July. Officers served search warrants but made no arrests, Troyer said.
“We don’t want to disrupt patients’ legitimate right to medical marijuana but we need it to be conducted under the rules,” said Troyer.
Lt. Greg Elwin of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department said raids on five dispensaries there were the result of a five-month investigation by the local narcotics task force.
At least 13 people were arrested on state drug-dealing charges and would be booked into Thurston County Jail, Elwin said. Dispensaries in Olympia, Lacey and Grand Mound were raided with search warrants, and cash and marijuana was seized, but patients were not targeted, he said.
“It is our contention that these dispensaries are unlawfully delivering marijuana to people who are not authorized to have it,” he said.
Longtime marijuana advocate and Seattle defense attorney Douglas Hiatt said the raids were the largest since voters approved medical marijuana in 1998. “It looks pretty massive,” he said.
Federal authorities under the Obama administration have been increasingly hostile to state medical-marijuana laws, with at least 120 raids and more than 55 arrests since 2009. The four U.S. attorneys in California sent formal warnings to dozens of dispensaries in October, and the U.S. attorney in Spokane effectively closed the aboveground dispensary market with letters, raids and four prosecutions.
The state law was significantly changed with a May veto by Gov. Chris Gregoire of a bill that would have legalized and regulated dispensaries. The veto gutted legal protections for dispensaries.
But most dispensaries, based on the advice of some attorneys, simply reorganized based on a broad reading of the new law, which allows 45-plant “collective gardens.”
Seattle and a handful of cities tolerate or lightly regulate dispensaries operating under the new model.
But narcotics investigators have chafed at what they see as exploitation of a loophole. Many within the medical-marijuana community have expected a raid for some time, bracing for what they see as an attack on legitimate patients’ access to cannabis.
“This doesn’t help safe access at all,” said Ben Livingston of the Cannabis Defense Coalition. “It seems like we should be spending our money on more important things.”