Pro-marijuana Montana legislator investigated by DEA

In a case that has implications for Colorado and other medical marijuana states, Montana legislator Diane Sands has come under investigation by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, but she doesn’t know why. She suspects the investigation is related to her advocacy of liberalized marijuana laws.

She told the Colorado Independent that she has no involvement in medical marijuana beyond her work in the legislature. The Missoula Democrat, though, has been very outspoken in the legislature, advocating for liberalized medical marijuana laws and also advocating for the federal de-listing of marijuana, so that it becomes an issue that can be decided by individual states.

“Because of the federal supremacy clause, federal law always trumps state law,” she says. “We fought a civil war over this. There is nothing a state can do to make marijuana legal, or even to make medical marijuana legal, but there is a process to change that at the federal level. Now that so many states have made medical marijuana legal, the federal government should remove marijuana from Schedule One of the Controlled Substances Act, and let the states regulate marijuana as they see fit,” she says.

“I don’t believe I should be investigated by the DEA for saying that. Any suggestion that the federal government is investigating me is very chilling. I’m an historian, so yes, I connect present activities to past activities, such as the Sedition Act of 1918 and the McCarthy hearings. When you have government officials investigating lawmakers because of how they pursue their official duties, you have a problem,” she contends.

“It is outrageous and absurd that the DEA would investigate a state lawmaker for doing her job: crafting state laws. When he ran for president, Barack Obama said he would not circumvent state medical marijuana laws. The president needs to keep his word and order the Justice Department to back off, and to focus on real crime instead of targeting medical marijuana providers and interfering with states’ democratic processes,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. “This could have a chilling effect on lawmakers who want to be involved in regulating medical marijuana in any state.”

“This is part of the continuing witch-hunt in Montana,” said Jim Gingery, executive director of the Montana Medical Growers Association. “They have already successfully intimidated law-abiding
businesspeople, and now they are attempting to intimidate any politician who is opposed to full prohibition. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Gingery said. “They will try to discredit anyone involved in medical marijuana in Montana.”

Sands said her name came up when a DEA agent asked a witness whether Sands was involved in a drug conspiracy case under investigation. That person’s attorney told Sands that her name had come up.

From the Missoulian:

A possible witness in a federal drug investigation was asked whether Sands might be part of a conspiracy to sell medical marijuana. The questions came from Drug Enforcement Administration agents from Billings who were investigating medical marijuana businesses, and Sands learned about the inquiry from the witness’ attorney.

“So now, if you’re a state legislator who has been working on medical marijuana laws, you are somehow part of a conspiracy,” said Sands, who represents House District 95 in Missoula and works as development director for the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. “It’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s also threatening to think that the federal government is willing to use its influence and try to chill discussion about this subject.”

DEA Special Agent Mike Turner, spokesperson for the DEA, out of Denver, told the Missoulian that the debate over medical marijuana is wracked by confusion.

From the Missoulian:

“We’re not interested in sick people, but we are interested in people who are profiting significantly. If they are, they are fair game as long as there is a reasonable expectation for a successful prosecution.”

“It is true that we’ve got competing laws in place here with states with medical marijuana laws, but federal law is clear,” he said. “Marijuana is illegal under federal law. If you are involved in selling marijuana, trafficking marijuana, profiting from marijuana, you are in jeopardy. We get questions about what we’ll investigate and what we won’t, and we can’t give that answer. But if you’re involved with profiting from marijuana, you’re in jeopardy.”

Turner apparently wouldn’t tell the Missoulian whether Sands was under investigation or why.

“What we are doing in Montana is part of an ongoing investigation that we cannot comment on,” he told the Colorado Independent. “This is not confirming or denying anything about Ms. Sands. We typically don’t go to the press to discuss who we are looking at or not looking at.

“As you know, marijuana is illegal federally and there is no exception in federal law for marijuana to be used as medicine,” Turner said.

He said the DEA and the Department of Justice are not investigating individual users or “street level” sellers of marijuana. “We go after folks who are distributing on a significant level. People who are profiting significantly are fair game,” he said.

A year ago the DEA orchestrated a massive raid on medical marijuana businesses in Montana, where voters approved legalizing medical marijuana by a substantial majority.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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