HELENA, Mont (Reuters) - A medical marijuana law in the state of Montana is being used for large-scale drug trafficking, federal prosecutors said, days after the U.S. government raided facilities across the state.
The raids on Monday capped an 18-month investigation of marijuana trafficking statewide, the U.S. Attorney for Montana, Michael Cotter, said in a statement.
Seizures also were carried out at financial institutions in three Montana cities under civil warrants seeking up to $4 million in connection with the alleged drug trade, he said.
The sweep prompted an outcry from medical marijuana advocates, who accused the government of cracking down on growers and distributors who were operating legally under the state’s seven-year-old medical marijuana law.
But Cotter said in his statement that the raids were conducted “where there is probable cause that the premises were involved in illegal and large-scale trafficking of marijuana.”
“When criminal networks violate federal laws, those involved will be prosecuted,” he said.
Although cannabis is still considered an illegal narcotic under federal law, 15 states and the District of Columbia have statutes legalizing pot for medical use, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
In a shift from the Bush administration’s position, the administration of President Barack Obama said in October 2009 it would no longer prosecute patients who use medical marijuana, or dispensaries that distribute it, in states where marijuana has been approved for such purposes.
A Justice Department spokeswoman in Washington, Tracy Schmaler, denied the Montana raids were at odds with the Obama administration’s policy pronouncement.
“We are not going to look the other way while significant drug trafficking organizations try and shield their illegal efforts ... through the pretense that they are medical dispensaries,” she said on Tuesday.
Federal agents seized some 1,700 pot plants at one facility, Montana Cannabis, said co-owner Chris Williams. He said the plants were the source of legitimate medicine for nearly 300 patients.
Montana law allows up to six marijuana plants to be grown for each patient.
Former Montana Cannabis owner Tom Daubert, who helped write the state’s medical marijuana statute, condemned the raids as heavy-handed. “I have every reason to believe the locations that were targeted were striving to be legal under state law.”
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune and Todd Eastham