Thursday, January 18, 2007
Plants, computers and cash seized in Everett
By CASEY MCNERTHNEY AND CLAUDIA ROWE
Drug enforcement agents raided the Everett headquarters of an advocacy group for medical marijuana patients, confiscating what police documents say was more than 1,000 plants and computers that the owners say contain personal information of about 200 men and women authorized to use the drug for medicinal purposes.
So far, no one has been arrested or charged with a crime.
Fearful of potential repercussions and unsure of the officers' ultimate aim, patients in the CannaCare network of marijuana users have been "laying low," said one, terrified that they may be prosecuted for using a substance authorized by their physicians.
"Who knows what they're doing with our information?" said Steve Newman, who has multiple sclerosis and has been using marijuana, obtained through CannaCare, for two years. "It makes me concerned -- really, really concerned. But we're pretty helpless. Nobody can say much about it."
A detective assigned to the federally funded West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team, which launched Friday's raid, scoffed at the notion that CannaCare -- run out of the home of medical marijuana advocate Steve Sarich -- was anything other than a drug-dealing enterprise.
Detective Roy Alloway said it was "absurd" to think that the number of plants Sarich was tending would be covered by his medical authorization.
"It's clear that Sarich is a guy that's selling drugs," said Alloway, who noted that state law allows no more than a 60-day supply of marijuana for medical use.
The amount found in Sarich's home, he said, was "not even close."
Long a thorn in the side of law enforcement for his vocal, thumb-in-the-eye advocacy style, Sarich, 56, insists that the government is merely harassing patients -- himself included -- who have a legitimate right to use the drug for managing pain due to multiple sclerosis, cancer and a host of other illnesses.
Washington voters approved the use of marijuana for certain medical conditions through a citizens initiative in 1998.
"Since they don't like medical marijuana, this is an attack on the people that support it," said Sarich, who insists he's no drug dealer. The nominal sums CannaCare collects go into supporting medical marijuana users, he said.
Only a few ounces of pot were found in the raid, and Sarich said the bulk of the seized crop was unrooted cuttings and starter plants. He also said the $1,020 drug agents seized in the raid was for his $1,103.56 Snohomish County PUD bill.
The raid's ultimate end remains unclear. Alloway said he referred the information to federal authorities because of the pot-growing operation's size.
Jeff Eig, spokesman for the Seattle division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reported on its Web site that the DEA said federal agents had raided 11 medical marijuana outlets in Los Angeles on Wednesday and seized several thousand pounds of marijuana, along with weapons and money.
Washington law allows possession of marijuana in doctor-approved cases but makes no provision for obtaining it, forcing patients who cannot grow enough to buy from others -- sometimes resorting to patronizing street-corner dealers.
Sarich, however, has flouted the statute by announcing that CannaCare will provide pot plants to patients. He and an associate, John Worthington, whose Renton home was also raided last week, said the police action was politically motivated retaliation.
Sarich also believes that because the state has no list of registered medical marijuana patients, CannaCare was targeted because it has contact information for more than 1,200 users.
That incursion into patient privacy worries advocates at the American Civil Liberties Union at least as much as the bust itself.
Alison Chin Holcomb, director of the Washington ACLU's Marijuana Education Project, said Sarich might have forced the government into it.
"He certainly wasn't afraid of getting the attention of law enforcement," she said. "He put himself out there on the radar."
Worthington recently sent documents alleging drug-enforcement excesses by Alloway to the state House and Senate judiciary and health care committees. He sent another letter to the State Patrol, accusing the detective of tampering with evidence.
"They went after me because I'm an activist, and I've been terrorized out of growing," said Worthington, whose home contained six marijuana plants, according to a Kitsap County Sheriff's Office document. "I can't have my kids frisked like they're criminals. That was disgusting. I'm not Al Capone -- I'm a dad."
Alloway, who works for the Bremerton Police Department, denied the allegations of wrongdoing on Wednesday.
P-I reporter Casey McNerthney can be reached at 206-448-8220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.