State Police marijuana raids raise questions and Islander ire

Reports of property damage and heavy-handed tactics add to resentment over the two-day operation.

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A State Police helicopter crew spent two days hovering over the Island in search of marijuana plants - photo Susan Safford

Updated Friday, August 5, 10 a.m.

The cloud of uncertainty over who ordered last week’s two-day aerial marijuana search-and-destroy mission on Martha’s Vineyard was lifted when State Police spokesman David Procopio told The Times in an email on Thursday that the operation was initiated by the State Police: “We routinely request the assistance of the National Guard in these operations. 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.”

In the aftermath of the operation, Islanders who were visited by cannabis-seeking cops expressed their outrage across social media. They described the disturbing nature of the raids, and collateral damage that include broken pots, trampled gardens, and sliced garden hoses.

A West Tisbury resident who lost eight plants she was growing for personal use was outraged about the invasion of privacy and the damage. She declined to provide her name, because she intends to grow cannabis again. “They invade your privacy and march in — they don’t knock on doors — and take what they want, and then to top it off, they cut up your hose,” she said.

“My friend who lives next door was cowering in her house,” she said.

The woman said her friend told her her phone was disabled during the visit: “I wanted to call a lawyer and see what our rights are. It’s made so many people upset and angry. I have a friend who had two small plants growing in terracotta pots, maybe two feet tall. She came home, the plants were gone, and the pots were smashed. Why did they have to do that?”

Budding legal questions

Whitney Taylor, political director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, said that the combining of federal and state resources makes the legality of the raids, or lack thereof, tough to pin down. “When you bring in the National Guard in conjunction with State Police, you then have another series of laws that can overlay on top,” she said. “What we need to be talking about is, Why this was made a priority, and why are we spending law enforcement and National Guard money on this? The people have already voted on this. Decriminalization was passed with 65 percent of the vote, and medical use passed with 63 percent. The people of the commonwealth have spoken very clearly that they don’t support this. Considering all that’s going on in this country and in the world, to use National Guard resources for this is deplorable.”

Ms. Taylor maintained that some kind of warrant should have preceded the raids. “They better have had a warrant,” she said. “Somebody should be checking what the purview of the warrant was, and if it was sticking to the criteria of the warrant.”

Ms. Taylor said that the ACLU would not get involved unless someone was arrested.

Michael Latulippe, development director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, a lobbying group that supports the decriminalization and medical use of marijuana, told The Times the raids raised several legal issues.

“If the state officials were enforcing federal law, that’s illegal,” he said. “It’s fine for the DEA to come in and raid by themselves.” Mr. Latulippe said if police destroyed plants without checking for medical use of marijuana (MUM) documentation, that would also be illegal.

“They eradicated 400 plants, which they just assumed were illegal drugs without checking for [MUM] documentation,” he said. “They’re not allowed to go out and destroy marijuana plants because it’s marijuana. Massachusetts has exercised its 10th Amendment rights as a state to say, ‘We’re not going to follow federal law when it comes to marijuana,’ and voted to make exceptions.”

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.”

Mr. Latulippe said since the state has been so slow in approving dispensaries for medical marijuana, the Hardship Cultivation Registration law also comes into play.

The Hardship Cultivation Registration 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.”

Congressman Bill Keating for did not respond to requests for comment. On Friday, August 5, a spokesperson for Attorney General Maura Healey said that the Attorney General deferred comment to the State Police.

On Tuesday, The Times sent an email to Mr. Procopio asking if officers were instructed to ask for MUM cards before destroying plants, if officers were instructed to cut hoses, and if there is a warrant on record for the raids. The email and follow up phone call were not answered.