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STEVE ELLIOTT

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Probable Cause? No.
Fraud, Waste and Abuse in Okanogan County

Folks from other parts of the country often think of Washington state as a unified beacon of enlightenment when it comes to cannabis, especially since state voters legalized medical marijuana a full 18 years ago, all the way back in 1998. But the unfortunate fact is, throughout that time, enforcement has varied wildly across the state; certain counties (for example, Kitsap) took more than a decade to come aboard with safe access, whereas others were never really comfortable with the idea.

Chris Oliver was just a volunteer helping out at the dispensary on the day it was raided. Cops took $2,000 of his own money from him. [LinkedIn]
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Chris Oliver was just a volunteer helping out at the dispensary on the day it was raided. Cops took $2,000 of his own money from him.
[LinkedIn]

Now, when a state law is interpreted in radically different fashions in different parts of the state, of course, it leaves things open for abuse, I mean “interpretation,” by local law enforcement agencies which — surprise, surprise! — especially in more rural parts of the state, just don’t like cannabis and those who use it, even for medicinal purposes.

Such is the case in conservative Okanogan County, Washington, where in July 2015, Chris Oliver, a medical marijuana dispensary volunteer was arrested — and $2,000 of his personal cash confiscated — based upon the “probable cause” of a local newspaper article in the Omak Chronicle announcing the opening of the legal business.

“I came, I helped,” Oliver told Toke Signals. “Then I said I’ll watch the collective and we got raided. Literally.”

The newspaper story in question, headlined “Medical pot shop open in Okanogan,” told of two businesses opening, a dispensary named Alternative Medicine Okanogan and a garden center named Grow Okanogan. The article told of the businesses offering legal “medical marijuana and medical products,” and listed the owners of the two businesses as Don Manchester and Janie Wallace.

So, basically, when the cops read a newspaper story, in which the newly opened dispensary proudly announced that safe access was now available to patients in Okanogan, instead of saying, “Oh, that’s good” and moving on to the next story, the Okanogan Sheriff’s Department felt it necessary to obtain a search warrant based on the story as “probable cause.”

It turns out that voter approval of I-502, Washington state’s 2012 recreational marijuana law, is at least partly to blame.

“An investigation began last November after the store opened, in light of changes in medical marijuana laws after the 2012 passage of Initiative 502 legalizing recreational marijuana, [Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office Chief Criminal Deputy Steve] Brown said,” according to Dee Kamp of The Omak Chronicle.

“Brown said store co-owner Don Manchester apparently has a marijuana producer’s license,” the Chronicle reported. “Initiative 502 prevents producers from operating retail operations.” That would be true, by the way, if the “retail operation” in question were a recreational marijuana store, but since it was a medical marijuana dispensary operated by qualified patients, that’s not the case.

Distressingly enough, a District Court judge in Okanogan County granted Detective Kevin Newport’s order for a body wire, unaccountably finding that the newspaper article in question was, indeed, probable cause “for belief that communications or conversations relating to said offense(s) will take place and will be obtained as evidence through interception and recording as hereafter set forth; and that multiple interceptions and recordings may be required.”

If this sounds like these locals cops were willing to spend a lot of tax money and valuable time pursuing a case against a legal medical marijuana dispensary for providing cannabis to legal patients, then we’re on the same page. Oh, and they also felt the case was “important” enough to bring in federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agent Sam Keiser, “one party to the expected communication.”

If Keiser’s name sounds familiar, it’s because the federal agent in question was also a major part of the misguided, unjust prosecution of Rhonda Firestack-Harvey in a nationally watched case last year.

Task force operatives wearing body wires allegedly made five purchases at the store, some by customers with medical marijuana cards and, they claimed, some without, but Oliver said to his knowledge, no sales were ever made to anyone without a Washington medical marijuana authorization.

According to the order for body wire, the cops expected “attacks that can be made on the credibility and reliability of DEA Agent Sam Keiser,” so the order was granted on March 10, 2015, so they’d have an actual tape (of, mind you, legal medical marijuana transactions).

Never mind that the application for a body wire was, according to Oliver, “a GROSS representation of fraud and abuse.”

st500
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Body wire designed for “tactical law enforcement surveillance operations”
[SpectraTek]

“It’s also now translated into a large amount of wasted tax dollars on court fees, and all parties’ involved time,” Oliver told Toke Signals.

Oliver, knowing the dispensary was operating within state law, petitioned for his $2,000 back, and represented himself in a hearing at the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office, at which the Twisp Chief of Police presided as judge/arbitrator (doesn’t sound promising, does it?)

During the hearing, the intrepid Oliver cross-examined every single state witness. Every one of them expressed complete ignorance of RCW 69.51a.085 and 69.51.a.100, the applicable sections of Washington’s medicinal cannabis law.

According to Oliver, the state witnesses had absolutely no knowledge of court precedence on medical marijuana collectives, the impact of SB 5076, or timed dates pertaining to the then newly passed SB 5052.

Ironically, anybody over 21 can now walk into The Sage Shop and buy legal marijuana [DOPE]
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Ironically, anybody over 21 can now walk into The Sage Shop and buy legal marijuana
[DOPE]

In the end, the chief of police/arbitrator seemed lost and unsure exactly what to do. He adjourned with the decision to be made “soon, within 10 days,” then a few days later announced Oliver had “lost” the hearing.

Oliver, understandably, immediately called to ask how to appeal that decision. Detective Newport answered the call, eventually getting back to Oliver to let him know that the Northwest Cascade Drug Task Force had decided, on their own, to give his money back, basically to avoid that appeal.

“Since February 2016, I have not had any defense lawyer (my assigned public defenders) concur or non-concur with any of my interpretations,” Oliver told me. “No motions have been made on my behalf, even when requested weeks ahead of time.”

“There has been no feedback on how to defend me, nor any confirmation that they understand Washington’s medical marijuana laws,” Oliver said. Chris’s next court date is a status hearing on December 19. His court trial begins on January 3, 2017.

Ironically, anybody 21 and older can now buy legal recreational marijuana 10-7 every day at Caribou Corner or The Sage Shop, I-502 cannabis stores in Okanogan.

Application and Affidavit for a Body Wire, Filed March 10, 2015


appaff_dtdmar10_2016-p2
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Order For Body Wire Granted

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