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July 18, 2007 The Stranger (WA)

OpEd: Budthirsty

The Washington State Patrol Will Do Almost Anything to Bust a Pot Grower

By Dominic Holden

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

On July 11, Washington State Patrol troopers found 8-year-old Chandler Osman in the cab of a truck that had just crushed her grandfather to death. Larry Maurer, 63, was trying to repair the vehicle after it broke down coming over Snoqualmie Pass. When he unhooked the driveline, the tractor rolled over him. How did troopers console the little girl? By questioning her, raiding her home, and arresting her parents.

You see, Chandler reportedly admitted that her mother and father, Rainee and Bruce Osman, grew marijuana -- as medicine -- in their Kent home. Washington State Patrol Lt. Jeff Sass says the topic came up when a female officer asked Chandler questions intended to comfort. "Her number-one concern was to get the girl home without upsetting her," Sass told The Stranger. The female officer inquired, "Where does mommy work?" to which Chandler replied: "Mommy doesn't work. Daddy doesn't work. Daddy grows medicine for mommy," Sass says.

A routine background search under the parents' names would have revealed the couple was arrested for growing marijuana in 2005. But search returns would also have shown no criminal charges were filed against the couple because they were authorized by their doctor to cultivate marijuana under Washington's Medical Use of Marijuana Act, passed in 1998.

Rather than trust records showing that the parents were abiding by the law, rather than check to make sure their pot paperwork was valid, rather than get a warrant before entering the home, and rather than take any humane step to comfort the grieving family, WSP troopers immediately dispatched several patrol cars to search the family's apartment.

"An officer pushed [my wife] into the house, flipped her around, and handcuffed her," explains Bruce Osman. "Then they slammed me against the wall and told us to shut up, and dragged us out of our house onto the steps of our apartment." He continues, "They went in and out of the house several times, and said they were waiting for a search warrant."

The Osmans, who are both disabled from hepatitis C and use marijuana to curb nausea and wasting syndrome, were not allowed to reenter for four hours while officers ransacked their apartment, removed the plants, and seized $2,000. KING-5 TV ran sympathetic footage of the couple's upturned house the next day.

"Ransacking the home of medical-marijuana patients is not what voters intended when they passed the medical-marijuana act," says Alison Holcomb, director of the ACLU of Washington's Marijuana Education Project and former criminal defense attorney. "If there is suspicion of a medical-marijuana case, [the officer] can always go up the chain of command and find out if [he] can just leave."

Bruce Osman, who had the doctor-signed letters posted in the garden, says, "I told them about the authorization forms. I told them I went to court and had never hidden it."

Holcomb says, "I think that the Osmans will have as strong a defense this time as they did before. My understanding is the Osmans were growing the same amount [as in 2005]."

So why would Washington State Patrol officers bust a legal medical-marijuana garden to make a case that -- unless there is evidence of a meth lab or illegal weapons -- probably won't stand up in court.

The couple's defense attorney, Douglas Hiatt, thinks officers did it simply because they could. "The medical-marijuana law has no arrest protection and only an affirmative defense," he says. That defense can only be raised once a defendant goes to court, so the WSP officers apparently harassed the grief-stricken family on a technicality -- busting the couple by any loophole necessary. The zealousness to bust pot growers is characteristic of the entire state patrol, which manages a toll-free hotline to anonymously report marijuana growers and rewards informants with a whopping $5,000.

Lt. Sass brazenly told KING-5 TV that officers could get away with it: "That's a horrific thing to have happen, but because of that doesn't mean we cannot continue the investigation that came out of a bad situation." Risk of negative press about officers' egregious enforcement from mainstream media outlets wouldn't have been a looming threat, either. The Seattle Times, which hasn't covered this story, ran a front-page feature one week earlier glorifying efforts of law enforcement to bust pot growers -- stories about the collateral damage from those busts apparently present an editorial conflict.

Lt. Sass says the officers only went to the home for what they call a "knock and talk," but, he says, when "[Rainee Osman] answered, it became obvious from the odor of marijuana emanating from the house there was marijuana growing.... Based on the amount, it was more [marijuana than intended for] personal use." Sass says the officers obtained a warrant.

Hiatt calls bullshit: "The problem is they didn't know how many plants they had until after they did the bust. We have a signed agreement with the King County Prosecutors Office that an authorized patient in King County may have 36 plants in any stage," he said. Hiatt counters that the warrant wasn't issued until after the search had begun. He contends it was illegal to search the house and for officers to seize the plants, and he believes police may have crossed the line by questioning the girl without notifying her guardians.

Bruce Osman claims they had 30 plants nearing maturity and 25 sprouts -- fewer than what they possessed when they were found to be in compliance with the law in 2005, and well within the county's guidelines for two patients. Nevertheless, Washington law simply states patients may cultivate a 60-day supply -- whatever that is. In lieu of any specific plant limit, officers construed the law narrowly.

No charges had been filed against the Osmans as of press time -- although they risk eviction. The King County Prosecutors Office hasn't returned The Stranger's calls. The search affidavit of probable cause is yet to be seen by defense attorney Hiatt.

Hiatt has requested the WSP return the seized plants. "This is our medicine for the next two months," says Bruce Osman.

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