Updated 3 pm, Thursday
It’s been some years since Islanders have seen a black helicopter crisscrossing the Island, its crew scanning Martha’s Vineyard woodlands and backyards for homegrown cannabis. Last Tuesday and Wednesday the black bird was back.
Massachusetts National Guard personnel, operating under a grant from the DEA, and in conjunction with mainland State Police, confiscated 392 plants that were sighted from above. Four of those plants belonged to Edgartown resident Paul Jackson, an 81-year-old former cancer patient who grows the plant for medicinal tea.
In a telephone conversation, Mr. Jackson said several plainclothes law enforcement officers in fluorescent orange vests came bounding out of the woods that abut his land and ripped out his plants, which he grew for medicinal tea. Mr. Jackson said none of the officers showed him identification or served him with a warrant.
“They just come charging through and start cutting it down,” he said.
Mr. Jackson, a lifelong Islander and renowned organic gardener with over 300 ribbons from the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair, expressed both bewilderment and disgust when he spoke to The Times on Friday.
“I told them they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re destroying it and it could be used for good purposes,” he said. “I know because I went through it before. You wrote about it in The Times. I had the article framed, took it out to show them; I said, ‘This is proof of what it does,’ but they didn’t want to hear it.”
Mr. Jackson was referring to a February 2013 article,” Love, life, and death: A Martha’s Vineyard marijuana story,” in which he described how cannabis tea had helped Mary, his wife of 53 years, through the pain of pancreatic cancer and the ravages of chemotherapy. Mr. Jackson said they forsook the morphine prescribed by her doctors, and substituted cannabis tea for pain management.
“I never ever saw pain in her face,” he said. “She was eating and happy, right up until she died. You had to see it to believe it. People don’t understand it. It’s a beautiful plant and it works beautifully.”
Over the years, Mr. Jackson has given away cannabis to others in pain. “There’s another fellow I’ve given it to, his wife has cancer bad,” he said. “They mix it with her food and it’s really helping her. Another fellow had a tube down his stomach and his wife would pour [tea] down his tube for the pain. And it worked. At least there’s no damn pain in it. I gave another guy some, he was taking seven different pills a day. I talked to him a month later and he said he’d gotten rid of three of those pills. It works on all kinds of different things.”
Mr. Jackson was an organic gardener long before the method became de rigeur on the Island. He said his naturally grown cannabis is far superior to the large-scale operations that supply the legal dispensaries.
“The people that are selling it are using chemicals that react with the chemotherapy,” he said. “Mine is much better because it’s organically grown. I saw it with my own eyes, I couldn’t believe how well it worked.”
Mr. Jackson also has firsthand experience with the analgesic qualities of his organically grown cannabis.
“I keep this because I’ve had cancer in both ears, and I never know when I may need it,” he said. “I grow a certain amount and I keep it. I found a way to store it for seven years.”
Mr. Jackson said he’s never smoked marijuana. “I don’t like smoke and I don’t like dust,” he said. “We just make tea out of it. But if I need to make the tea, I’ve got it. I don’t sell it. I will continue to have a certain amount in case somebody close to me needs it.”
Massachusetts has historically been one of the more liberal states with respect to marijuana laws. On November 4, 2008, with voter approval, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to remove the possibility of jail time for simple marijuana possession.
The Act for the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana, which was approved in the 2012 general election by 63 percent of state voters, became effective Jan. 1, 2013.
According to Department of Public Health (DPH) guidelines, a patient with a “Medical Use of Marijuana” (MUM) card can grow a 60-day supply of marijuana, 10 ounces maximum, or the equivalent in other forms such as edibles and tinctures. It does not specify the number of plants that can be grown by a card-holding patient. But it requires “cultivation and storage only in an enclosed, locked facility.”
The “Hardship Cultivation Registrations” allows people with MUM cards to legally grow their own medicinal marijuana. A patient can qualify if “access to a medical treatment center is limited by verified financial hardship, a physical incapacity to access reasonable transportation, or the lack of a treatment center within a reasonable distance of the patient’s residence.”
Mr. Jackson said he does not have a MUM identification card.
“They tell you different things; they say you can grow as much as you want if it’s locked up, they say 10 ounces,” he said. “I figured what I was growing was such a small amount, what the hell was the big deal?”
With cannabis legalization, also known the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, Question 4 on the ballot for November’s election, earlier this week The Times sought to discover who gave the orders for the mission. After conversations with several state and federal agencies, initially it was not clear who ordered the aerial eradication.
State Police Sergeant Joe Pimentel, commander of the Island’s State Police barracks, told The Times it was a DEA grant-funded operation, similar to searches that took place several years ago before funding expired. Sergeant Pimentel said each day of the operation one of his officers was assigned to the aerial team’s ground crew to provide local knowledge but was not involved in the actual operation.
Sergeant Pimentel learned about the operation a short time before it began and alerted Island police departments. Local police fielded numerous calls from concerned residents but were not involved.
In response to inquiries, on Tuesday, Colonel James Sahady, Public Affairs Officer for the Massachusetts National Guard emailed The Times, “The order was initiated by the DEA and Massachusetts State Police as part of pre-planned eradication missions throughout the year.”
In a followup conversation on Wednesday, Colonel Sahady said it was State Police and the National Guard Counter-Drug Team that collaborated on the mission. “We have a memorandum of understanding and work together on missions throughout the year,” he said.
Although Colonel Sahady did not identify who gave the order for the mission, he said it would have come from State Police.“We would never give out the initial order. We always work in a defense support to civil authorities,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time.”
In a later email on Wednesday, Colonel Sahady corrected his email from Tuesday and said the DEA was not involved.
Contacted by The Times, a spokesmen for the DEA said their organization was not involved.
DEA spokesman Tim Desmond wrote in an email on Tuesday, “I have received confirmation from two group supervisors and the assistant special agent in charge whose area of responsibility is that region for DEA. I can only speak on behalf of DEA that we were not involved in any kind of marijuana eradication operation.”
On Tuesday, two Massachusetts State Police spokesmen checked into the matter and said there was no evidence of State Police involvement. “It was not us,” Officer Tom Ryan told The Times.
In a follow up email received on Thursday, State Police spokesman David Procopio said the operation was initiated by the State Police. “We routinely request the assistance of the National Guard in these operations,” Mr. Procopio said in an email to The Times. “Our Narcotics Inspection Section conducts these operations regularly across the state. We utilize a trained spotter in a helicopter to search for marijuana grow sites. Once one is located, the spotter directs ground units to the plants, which are confiscated and taken by State Police for eventual destruction. These seizures occasionally result in criminal prosecutions, but many times do not, if the plants are seized from rural or wooded areas that can be accessed by many people (as opposed to just growing in some homeowner’s backyard).”
Mr. Procopio said State Police seized 392 plants, “which are slated for destruction as part of our next narcotics burn.”
Although the helicopter was parked at Martha’s Vineyard Airport last Tuesday night, there are no records of landing fees or fuel purchases paid by a government agency, according to airport manager Ann Crook.
Ms. Crook said she had not been forewarned about the mission. “I only heard about it when my phone started lighting up,” she said.
“I had not heard about it happening in Massachusetts this summer, but I’m not that surprised,” Bill Downing, spokesman for MassCan/NORML, a legalization advocacy group, told The Times. “The idea we’re so frivolously spending money on marijuana interdiction, especially now when it’s about to be rolled back, is extremely frustrating. How many books or school lunches could have been bought instead of having these plants ripped up?”
Mr. Downing suggested the mission might have originated with district attorneys and/or prosecutors who strongly oppose legalization. He cited Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’ Keefe as one of its strongest opponents.
However, Mr. O’ Keefe told The Times that the order did not come from his office. “I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “The DEA and State Police do this across the state on a regular basis. That’s what the DEA does; they interdict illegal drugs.”
Mr. O’Keefe said he had no personal opinion whether the two-day mission was a good use of state and federal resources. “My opinion doesn’t matter,” he said.
Correction – A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Bay State Repeal Initiative No. 15-23, was on this November’s ballot. The story has also been updated to include information provided by the State Police with respect to how the mission originated.