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US Attorney breaks silence on medical pot probe

HELENA — The Justice Department has broken its long silence about last year's crackdown on medical marijuana operations in Montana, with U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter saying more than two dozen people have been indicted so far and that prosecutions will continue.

The statement released by the U.S. Attorney's Office is the agency's first since a single press release was sent the day after the March 14, 2011, raids on 26 homes, offices and businesses that effectively stymied the state's once-booming medical pot trade.

Then, federal prosecutors said the warrants were part of a long-running investigation into drug trafficking.

More than a year later, prosecutors have provided their first update on the investigation, saying more than 25 people have been indicted on federal drug charges related to the raids and 12 people have been sentenced.

The fallout is still happening, with another recent round of arrests, indictments and plea deals.

Cotter said prosecutors will keep targeting large-scale marijuana operations.

"Federal law is clear — the manufacture, distribution, possession and use of marijuana remains unlawful under federal law, " Cotter said in the statement Thursday. He added that his office "will continue to support investigations and prosecutions of significant traffickers of all illegal drugs, including marijuana, in an effort to disrupt and dismantle illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking networks in Montana and elsewhere."

The U.S. attorney released his statement as members of a Miles City family of medical marijuana providers became the 10th, 11th and 12th people involved in the raids to be sentenced.

Richard Flor ran the operation and was a co-founder of Montana Cannabis, while his wife Sherry kept the books and his son Justin tended the plants and ran the operation's Billings dispensary.

U.S. Judge Charles Lovell sentenced the men to five years each in prison, while Sherry Flor was sentenced to two years. Those are the harshest sentences of the dozen, whose prison terms have ranged from six months to two years.

The Flors had asked for leniency, arguing that they were following the state's medical marijuana law. That's been the argument of several providers, and also is the argument asserted in a civil lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 2011 raids.

The Flors also said that they believed they were operating with the blessing of the federal government, after a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice memo said federal prosecutors would not pursue people who were in strict compliance with state medical marijuana laws.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thaggard said that memo made clear that those involved in medical marijuana had to be in "clear and unambiguous compliance" with state laws, and operators like the Flors were not.

The U.S. Attorney's Office also cited another Montana federal judge's ruling that the federal Controlled Substance Act prevails when there is a conflict between that law and state medical marijuana laws, and said that prosecutors will continue to target large drug organizations.

So far, federal prosecutors have remained true to their word. Prosecutors recently arrested four of the six medical marijuana providers who filed the civil lawsuit against the federal government.

They also reached a plea agreement earlier this month with Tom Daubert, another co-founder of Montana Cannabis and a lobbyist who was the state's face for medical pot advocacy for several years.

"Even though he believed he was in compliance with state law, that is not a defense in federal court," Daubert attorney Peter Lacny said. "It's in his best interest to minimize any effect on his future when it comes to prison time."

It's not clear how many more medical marijuana providers will be targeted in the investigations, but the effect is obvious. The number of registered users and providers has plummeted, and many providers have either shuttered their doors or gone underground in fear that they will be next.

The state Legislature followed the raids with a law that bans commercial sales of medical marijuana, but that portion of the new law is on hold pending a court challenge.

The state Supreme Court will hear arguments on the law on April 30.


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