March 19, 2010

Where there's pot, drug crime follows

Robberies and killings raise concerns in some states that allow medical marijuana.

By LISA LEFF The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Patients, growers and clinics in some of the 14 states that allow medical marijuana are increasingly falling victim to robberies, home invasions, shootings and even murders at the hands of pot thieves.

There have been dozens of cases in recent months alone. The issue received more attention this week after a prominent medical marijuana activist in Seattle nearly killed a robber in a shootout. It was the eighth time thieves had targeted his pot-growing operation.

Critics say the heists and holdups prove that marijuana and crime are inseparable, while marijuana advocates contend that further legalization is the answer.

"Whenever you are dealing with drugs and money, there is going to be crime. If people think otherwise, they are very naive," said Scott Kirkland, the police chief in El Cerrito, Calif., and a vocal critic of his state's voter-approved medical marijuana law.

"People think if we decriminalize it, the Mexican cartels and Asian gangs are going to walk away. That's not the world I live in," Kirkland said.

Activists and law enforcement officials say it is difficult to get an accurate picture of crimes linked to medical marijuana because many drug users don't report the crimes to police for fear of arousing unwanted attention from authorities. But the California Police Chiefs Association used press clippings to compile 52 medical marijuana-related crimes -- including seven homicides -- from April 2008 to March 2009.

There also is plenty of anecdotal evidence:

A man in Washington state was beaten to death last week with what is believed to be a crowbar after confronting an intruder on the rural property where he was growing cannabis to treat painful back problems.

•  Medical marijuana activist Steve Sarich exchanged gunfire with intruders in his Seattle home Monday, shooting and critically injuring one of them.

•  In California, a boy was shot to death while allegedly trying to steal a cancer patient's pot plants from his home garden.

•  A respected magazine editor was killed in 2007 by robbers who targeted his Northern California home for marijuana and money after hearing that his teenage son was growing pot with a doctor's approval.

•  Robbers killed a security guard at a Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensary in 2008.

Police and marijuana opponents say the violence is further proof that the proliferation of medical marijuana is a problem that will worsen if the drug is legalized or decriminalized.

Pot activists say the opposite: that prohibition breeds crime and legalization would solve the problem. They also say the robberies have exposed the need for more regulation of medical marijuana laws in states like California, Washington and Colorado.

"The potential for people to get ripped off and for people to use guns to have to defend themselves against robbers is very real," said Keith Stroup, founder and chief legal counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "But it (has) nothing to do with medical marijuana. It (has) to do with the failure of states to regulate this."

Marijuana advocates say there is adequate regulation in New Mexico, where officials say there have been no violent medical marijuana robberies.

Medical cannabis is primarily grown by a small number of regularly inspected nonprofits in New Mexico, and the state keeps their names and locations confidential. The law includes extensive requirements covering security, quality control, staff training and education about the use of the drug.

In Maine, where voters approved a law in November that expands the rights of medical marijuana users, a legislative committee reached agreement Thursday on how to implement the law. It voted to authorize a maximum of eight nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries around the state, and devised regulations for medical users of the drug. And there were concerns about the potential for an increase in drug-related crime.

Nationally, most medical marijuana states have only vague rules for caregivers or dispensaries participating in a business with products that can fetch $600 an ounce. Some states, including California and Colorado, can only guess how many pot dispensaries they have because the businesses don't have to register with the state.

Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the pro-pot Drug Policy Alliance, said that although the robberies are disturbing, there is no way to conclude that legalized marijuana breeds any more crime than convenience stores, banks or homes stocked with expensive jewelry and electronics.

In fact, Denver police said the 25 robberies and burglaries targeting medical marijuana in the city in the last half of 2009 amounted to a lower crime rate than what banks or liquor stores there suffered.

"I think what we are seeing is a spate of crime that reflects the novelty of medical marijuana cultivation and distribution through unregulated means," Gutwillig said.


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