Wa: Despite verdict, prosecutor still will pursue pot operations

WA: DESPITE VERDICT, PROSECUTOR STILL WILL PURSUE POT OPERATIONS
yakimaheraldrepublic/ 3/26/2011 / By Mark Morey

YAKIMA, Wash. — Yakima County’s prosecuting attorney says last week’s acquittal in the county’s first medical marijuana trial won’t change his policy of prosecuting large marijuana operations.

Prosecutor Jim Hagarty said the verdict, which was reached by the jury in less than 25 minutes, carried no significance with him regarding whether to continue prosecuting such cases, which he said remain illegal under state and federal law.

"I’m not sure what the jury thought, but we’re not changing the way we do business," Hagarty said Friday.

Valtino Hicks of Yakima was acquitted Thursday in Yakima County Superior Court of charges related to 200 marijuana plants that police seized from his Yakima home in March 2010.

Hicks’ case differed somewhat from a Spokane case earlier this month in which the operator of a commercial dispensary in Spokane was convicted of selling marijuana.

Prosecutors argued that it was illegal for the operator to sell marijuana. The Spokesman-Review newspaper reported the man was expected to appeal the conviction, arguing the law allows him to become the authorized provider for the patient at the time of sale.

Hicks maintained that he was only providing space for medical marijuana patients or their providers to grow the plant. The prosecution contended that Hicks did not qualify as a medical user, in part because of the size of the growing operation.

Under state law, medical marijuana patients or their providers are allowed a "presumptive" 60-day supply of 15 plants and can give marijuana to one patient "at any one time."

The debate over the statute hinges largely on the meaning of that phrase. Advocates for medical marijuana contend that more than one patient can be given marijuana as long as it’s done one person at a time.

The Legislature is currently considering changes to the law to clarify the rules for dispensaries or collectives, such as the one Hicks says he was running.

Two other local cases are pending in which a medical marijuana argument is possible.

Both cases were handled by Law Enforcement Against Drugs, a task force based in the Lower Valley.

In the first case, Granger resident Jeremy Rodriguez claimed that a medical marijuana card and his role as provider for another patient allowed him to grow marijuana at his home. Drug agents said they found 72 plants and felony amounts of packaged marijuana when they served a search warrant at the home in February.

The prosecution is challenging a court order that would allow Rodriguez to present a medical marijuana defense based on having the card.

Investigators said in their case report that they suspected Rodriguez had ties to a Granger gang whose members were relying on the state’s medical marijuana statute to facilitate obtaining the drug.

In the second case, Selah resident Wade Kennedy told LEAD agents that he was growing marijuana at his home so he could donate it to a Seattle dispensary for medical marijuana patients, according to the arrest report. Officers said they found 44 plants, some of which were visible in the backyard.

Kennedy’s case is set for trial next month.

Defense attorney Greg Scott of Yakima, who represents both men, has said he thinks the Legislature needs to clarify what is allowed now.

Hagarty said he sees the medical marijuana debate as part of the effort to legalize marijuana, although medical marijuana advocates often say they don’t see eye to eye with the legalization camp.

Hagarty said he was not aware of any cases referred to his office that involved growing operations that were around the 15-plant limit mentioned in the statute.

"When you’re growing marijuana, it’s illegal," Hagarty said.

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