|Photo: Eliza Wiley/Helena Independent Record
|Chris Williams of the Montana Caregivers Association watches as DEA agents and local law enforcement raid his Montana Cannabis grow operation on March 14. Willliams is now suing the federal government.
Two Montana medical marijuana providers have accused the United States government of civil rights violations in what is believed to be the first lawsuit of its kind, in response to a federal crackdown on medicinal cannabis operations nationwide.
The owners of Montana Caregivers Association and MCM Caregivers said that federal raids on medical marijuana businesses across Montana in March were unconstitutional, exceeded the government’s authority and preempted the states’ medical marijuana law, reports Matt Volz at the Associated Press. Montana’s medicinal cannabis law was approved by an overwhelming 62 percent of voters in 2000.
Since the Montana raids, Drug Enforcement Administration agents have raided two Washington state dispensaries, and federal prosecutors have sent threatening letters to political leaders in many of the 15 states which have legalized medical marijuana.
The lawsuit was filed on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Missoula against the federal government, the Department of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Attorney for Montana Michael Cotter.
The plaintiffs say the intent of the federal raids was to shut down the state’s medical marijuana industry.
|Photo: Belgrade News
|Randy Leibenguth and his wife Stephanie watch as their medical marijuana dispensary is raided by federal agents on March 14.
”The federal government has made it clear its intent to threaten and eventually eliminate any business or enterprise related to the medical use of marijuana,” Christopher Williams of the Montana Caregivers Association and Randy Leibenguth of MCM Caregivers said in the lawsuit.
The Department of Justice had no comment on the suit when contacted Wednesday. U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter’s spokeswoman, Jessica Fehr, also wouldn’t comment, claiming the office hadn’t been served with the lawsuit.
This is the first constitutional challenge of the government’s actions, according to New Mexico attorney Paul Livingston, who is representing the plaintiffs.
“I’m surprised nobody’s raised a 10th Amendment challenge,” Livingston said. “This is a process going on in all the states that have approved medical marijuana. They’re trying to set limits.”
According to the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, powers not delegated to the federal government or prohibited are reserved to the states. Marijuana providers can’t be arrested, prosecuted or penalized if they do not exceed the amount of cannabis they are allowed to keep per patient, according to current Montana state law.
DEA agents executed 26 search warrants against medical marijuana businesses in Montana on March 14, seizing cannabis, cash, weapons and vehicles in what U.S. Attorney Cotter claimed was a “drug-trafficking investigation.” No charges have been filed in connection with the “smash and grab” raids, and Cotter’s office won’t comment on the “investigation.”
Cotter’s threatening letter to Montana political leaders said the Department of Justice considers it “a top priority” to prosecute those involved in the trade of “any illegal drugs.” But the letter added that the DOJ would not pursue prosecution of seriously ill individuals who are following their state’s medical marijuana laws.
Governor Brian Schweitzer has said he would allow a new medical marijuana “overhaul” bill to become law without his signature later this week. The law would gut the state’s medical marijuana industry and make criminals of many currently legal patients.
Protesters are planning a petition drive in which they hope to gather enough signatures to block the bill from becoming law.
In their lawsuit, Williams and Leibenguth say that because the Constitution does not expressly grant the government powers over medical marijuana, the government violated the 10th Amendment to overrule Montana’s medical marijuana laws.
They are asking Judge Donald Molloy to declare the raids unconstitutional and prevent the federal government from threatening, interfering or prosecuting them for activities which are legal under state law. They are also asking for to be compensated for an unspecified amount of damages.