SEATTLE — Federal agents raided three medical marijuana dispensaries Tuesday in Seattle, where local law enforcement has taken a hands-off approach to the shops, and coordinated raids on at least 10 others around Puget Sound in the biggest crackdown since voters approved medical marijuana 14 years ago.
The Drug Enforcement Administration joined local sheriff’s offices in executing search warrants at five dispensaries in Pierce County and five in Thurston County. By Tuesday evening, three search warrant affidavits had been unsealed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, suggesting that the shops were fronts for illicit drug dealing and revealing that agents were looking for evidence of drug conspiracies, money laundering and guns.
“Any state law that purports to make the distribution of marijuana legal, for any purpose, does not provide a defense to federal law,” wrote DEA Special Agent Daniel Olson. “However, our investigation is not currently targeting medical marijuana providers that comply with the letter and spirit of existing state law.”
Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan echoed that in a statement Tuesday evening.
“We will not prosecute truly ill people or their doctors who determine that marijuana is an appropriate medical treatment. However, state laws of compassion were never intended to protect brash criminal conduct that masquerades as medical treatment,” she wrote.
Jason Semer, who runs a marijuana industry website called www.THClist.com, said many of the busted dispensaries were clients of his. He blamed the confusing state of law.
“None of them are doing this strictly to break laws,” he said. “A lot of these people want to follow the laws and be on the up-and-up, but nobody can figure out what the up-and-up is.”
Washington voters approved a medical marijuana law in 1998, and in recent years the dispensaries have proliferated across the state. Earlier this year, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed legislation that would have created a state system for licensing medical marijuana dispensaries over concern that it would require state workers to violate the federal Controlled Substances Act by inspecting marijuana grow operations, among other things.
The city of Seattle responded by passing legislation to regulate medical marijuana shops like any other business — requiring that they be licensed, pay taxes and fees, obtain food-handling permits if they sell marijuana cookies, and follow all other regulations such as land-use codes.
It wasn’t immediately clear if anyone was booked into jail, but some people were detained at least briefly during the searches.
The search warrant affidavits noted a variety of tactics used by agents, including undercover buys at the pot shops — some made without showing proper authorization to possess marijuana, agents wrote. In one case, the DEA said, Seattle Cannabis Co-op, a dispensary with two storefronts in Seattle, sold marijuana in bulk to a confidential informant who had stated an intent to transport and sell the drugs in the Midwest.
An employee there not only agreed, but suggested that the informant buy low-quality weed because buyers in the Midwest wouldn’t know the difference.
Aaron Pelley, an attorney for one of the dispensary’s owners, said he hadn’t seen the allegations and couldn’t immediately comment.
“They feel very strongly about staying in compliance with state law,” he said.