OLYMPIA, WA — When Bayside Collective owner Casey Lee saw seven vehicles speed into the parking lot of his Olympia, Washington medical marijuana dispensary Wednesday morning, he thought he was being robbed, and told his employees to take cover.
“When I came outside, there were guns drawn on me,” Lee said Wednesday night. “And then I saw the badges.”
As DEA agents cleaned out the shelves of his dispensary, confiscating an estimated $2,500 worth of medical marijuana and 17 small marijuana plants, Lee says an agent asked him why he continued to remain in the business of providing medical marijuana.
“One of the DEA agents said: ‘This is your second raid and your third robbery. Why do you keep doing this?’” Lee said. ”I just told him it’s because we just enjoy helping people, and he told us that he wasn’t expecting that answer. They don’t get to see the cancer patients.”
Lee says another agent approached him during the raid and said, “Things are going to be hell for you.”
Lee’s Bayside Collective was one of several medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington raided by federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency Wednesday, in a sweep that stretched the I-5 corridor from Seattle to Tacoma to Olympia.
“Enforcement operations have concluded and due to the ongoing nature of the investigation we will only be able to provide the following information: Several search warrants were executed today involving marijuana storefronts in King, Thurston and Pierce Counties,” Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman Jodie Underwood said late Wednesday, but declined to provide any further explanation as to how many dispensaries were targeted, or why.
Washington is one of 20 states in the US that have authorized the medical use of marijuana, and one of two states where voters in November 2012 elected to legalize the possession and state regulated sale of marijuana to adults 21 or older.
According to Lee, his dispensary was doing everything it could to operate under Washington medical marijuana law, but agents told him he was being raided because marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
“We asked what we were doing wrong?” Lee said. “We thought we were complying with every law and everything and they said it’s federally illegal.”
Steve Sarich, executive director of the Cannabis Action Coalition, says the raids Wednesday weren’t about shutting down medical marijuana dispensaries at all.
He believes it is the federal government flexing their muscles in an ongoing battle between a state whose voters chose to legalize marijuana and the federal government refusing to back down from their stance that marijuana is very much illegal.
Sarich added that armed commando style raids on the medical marijuana community are unnecessary, saying that if federal authorities wanted the collectives to close, legal notices were equally, if not more, effective.
“What this is is urban terrorism, Sarich says. ”They want us uncomfortable. They want us scared all the time. If you get a cease and desist letter from the feds you shut down because you can’t really fight them but when they come in with machine guns and helmets, that’s to terrorize you and it’s to terrorize the community.”
Along with Bayside Collective, Seattle Cross, Tacoma Cross and Key Peninsula Cross were also confirmed to have been raided. The exact number of dispensaries raided Wednesday remains unknown, but as many as 18 collectives could have been targeted according to Seattle marijuana law attorney Douglas Hiatt.
“A client of mine who was talking to a D.E.A agent was told that there were going to be 18 places raided today up and down the corridor,” said Hiatt Wednesday.
A short drive up I-5 in Tacoma, the doors to Tacoma Cross were locked, and a hand written sign hung in the window that read “Sorry. Closed Until Further Notice.”
The same was true at Seattle Cross, where one medical marijuana patient was surprised to see the closed sign and empty shelves.
“It is just to me inconceivable that this is still happening,”says Leif O’Leary, angry at the DEA. ”You can’t tell me there isn’t bigger fish to fry, especially now that recreational marijuana is legal.”
During the 2008 presidential elections, presidential candidate Barack Obama said that medical marijuana was an issue for state governments, not the federal government.
“I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue,” Obama said at the time.
But since the 2008 elections, the Obama administration has become increasingly less tolerant of state’s marijuana laws.
In a 2009 memo to federal prosecutors in the then-14 states that allowed medical marijuana, the Justice Department said that it was committed to the “efficient and rational use” of its resources, and that prosecuting patients and distributors who are in “clear and unambiguous compliance” with state medical marijuana laws would not happen.
Two years later, the administration made an abrupt about-face, and began a large scale federal crackdown on medical marijuana providers, beginning with major enforcement efforts in California and Colorado.
When voters in Washington and Colorado legalized the adult use, consumption and sale of marijuana in November, President Obama told ABC’s Barbara Walters that the federal government has “bigger fish to fry” than enforcing federal drug laws in states that allow medical or recreational use of marijuana.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” President Obama told ABC News. “It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal.”
However, Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) appointed by President Obama, said in February that enforcement of federal marijuana laws will continue in both states.
“You’ll continue to see enforcement against distributors and large-scale growers as the Justice Department has outlined. They will use their limited resources on those groups and not on going after individual users,” said Kerlikowske. ”We still have federal law that places marijuana as being illegal.”
US Attorney General Eric Holder has refused to comment on how the Department of Justice will handle recreational pot shops once they open in early 2014.
“You will hear soon,” Holder said in February. ”We’re in the last stages of that review and we’re trying to make a determination as to what the policy ramifications are going to be, what our international obligations are — there are a whole variety of things that go into this determination — but the people of [Colorado] and Washington deserve an answer and you will have one soon.”
Holder, and the Department of Justice, have been silent ever since. But with Wednesday’s renewed crackdown on medical marijuana providers in Washington, it would appear that question has been answered.