Twenty Gilbert police officers, some in masks and riot gear, stormed a home last week after receiving a tip that the owner was in possession of an ounce of marijuana.
The homeowner, Ross Taylor, is a card-carrying patient under Arizona's new medical-marijuana law, which allows people to qualify to possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of pot legally. He's also the owner of Cannabis Patient Screening Centers, a new company that hooks up patients with doctors for medical pot recommendations.
After handcuffing Taylor and his wife, the cops served a search warrant on the home and found two ounces of marijuana a small amount of hashish, which is just concentrated marijuana. Police seized the "medicine" and some paraphernalia from an upstairs closet, even though the total weight of the weed was under the legal threshhold, then told Taylor he'll probably be hearing from the prosecutor's office about criminal charges.
Sergeant Bill Balafas, Gilbert PD spokesman, tells New Times that because Taylor bought the pot from another person, as opposed to growing it himself, the possession wasn't legal despite his status as a patient.
"People are being harassed," says Taylor, who called New Times this week to report the tale of law enforcement overkill. "They want political control."
We're still waiting for the release of the police report, but for now, Balafas confirms many of Taylor's details.
Besides the waste of resources for a pot-possession bust, the incident also reveals the state of confusion that reigns following November's passage of Proposition 203 by Arizona voters.
According to Balafas, Gilbert's drug-enforcement squad received information that Taylor had an ounce of pot in his home. Police had no idea Taylor owned a medical-marijuana company or that he had a valid registration card, Balafas says.
That's the first problem, as we see it: Cops went through the trouble of drafting a search warrant and having it signed by a judge, but apparently they didn't bother to check in with the state Department of Health Services to find out if Taylor was in the patient registry, which he was.
About 6:30 p.m. last Thursday, the raiding party cut the power and water in the home, (presumably to stop anyone from shoving the pot down the garbage disposal or toilet.) They knocked and "screamed" they had a search warrant, Taylor says, so he let them in.
Taylor, who's from Phoenix but has lived for the last couple of years in Prescott, had just obtained title on his new Gilbert home the week before and was in the process of moving in.
Kevin Anderson, a manager with All My Sons Moving and Storage, says three of his employees were handcuffed after the cops -- some with shields and holding shotguns -- came in with the announcement that they were the "SWAT" team. The three movers were detained for about an hour until cops let them go, Anderson says.
Taylor, meanwhile, showed the cops his registration card. One of the masked officers told him, "I don't even know if you're supposed to have this card," and referred to the state lawsuit against the voter-approved law.
Balafas doesn't think the officer said that. However, Balafas did back a related detail.
Taylor informed the officers that he'd bought the pot from another qualified patient, and they told him that means he wasn't legally in possession of the weed. During the raid, police called the state health department and were told that patients "cannot legally buy from anyone else," says Balafas.
He did not know the name of the DHS representative who was contacted. Laura Oxley, spokeswoman for DHS, is trying to find out for us.
We believe, based on a reading of the law and interviews in the last few months with state officials and advocates of the law, that qualified patients can legally possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of pot no matter where it came from. According to Arizona statute:
A. There is a presumption that a qualifying patient or designated caregiver is engaged in the medical use of marijuana pursuant to this chapter.
1. The presumption exists if the qualifying patient or designated caregiver:
(a) Is in possession of a registry identification card.
(b) Is in possession of an amount of marijuana that does not exceed the allowable amount of marijuana.
The state DHS also weighs in on this issue in its FAQs about the law:
QP30: Where can I legally buy marijuana if I am a qualifying patient?
Qualifying patients can obtain medical marijuana from a dispensary, the qualifying patient's designated caregiver, another qualifying patient, or, if authorized to cultivate, from home cultivation.
The hashish isn't covered at all under the law, says spokesman Bill Balafas, so it's always illegal. We're still trying to find out if that's true. If so, it would be nothing less than a loophole that cops can use to bust qualified patients who have converted pot plants into a more concentrated form. Hash is sold in various forms, such as hash cake, kief, or hash oil, in dispensaries in California and Colorado, where it's also commonly used in pot-infused food products.
Ultimately, police seized the pot but didn't take Taylor to jail. Prosecutors can file charges weeks or months from now, if they so choose.
Balafas denies that Taylor was targeted because of his involvement in the pot industry, (again, he says cops didn't know that until after serving the warrant.)
"We do not do anything based on political issues," the police spokesman says. "We are completely, 100 percent criminal enforcement."
Yeah, maybe -- but what criminal? Taylor has no criminal record that we could find online, and he appears to have been legal under the new law.
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Gilbert Police Chief Tim Dorn couldn't be bothered to call us back after we left a message for him.
Taylor says he's not sure why police targeted him, but admits that a satellite TV installer spotted a bag of pot in his closet the morning of the raid, and surmises that could have been the source of the cops' tip.
"Maybe this was their way of saying 'Welcome to Gilbert!'" Taylor says of the police.
For now, the East Valley town just might be one place for qualified medical-marijuana patients to avoid. We'll revisit this tale once we learn more.