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MailTribune.com
  • Abuse of the system?

    As authorities try to nip OMMP abuse in the bud, those impacted say they've gone too far
  • A FedEx box containing $29,920 of cleverly disguised cash bore Sherry Beveridge's name on the label, and she had an intriguing story to tell the cops who wondered why it was there.
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    • ABOUT THIS SERIES
      The Mail Tribune takes a three-day look at the increasing use of civil forfeiture by federal law enforcement agencies to seize the profits and property of people accused of abusing the Oregon Medic...
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      ABOUT THIS SERIES
      The Mail Tribune takes a three-day look at the increasing use of civil forfeiture by federal law enforcement agencies to seize the profits and property of people accused of abusing the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.

      Today: How the civil forfeiture process works, the arguments on both sides regarding its fairness, the impact it has made and what happens to the seized money and property.

      Monday: Local drug fighters use a police dog to sniff incoming packages for cash, but people don't have to be charged with crimes to lose their property if it doesn't pass the sniff test.

      Tuesday: Both police and medical mari­juana advocates say changes are needed to stop drug traffickers from hijacking the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.
  • A FedEx box containing $29,920 of cleverly disguised cash bore Sherry Beveridge's name on the label, and she had an intriguing story to tell the cops who wondered why it was there.
    During a road trip to South Dakota, the Grants Pass woman told a Medford police officer, she had an amazing run of luck at a string of Indian casinos. She told police she cleared $40,000 by the time she reached her destination in Sioux Falls.
    Beveridge claims she didn't want to spend the money, so she asked her cousin to ship it to her after she returned home. Hence, the box of money, sent to her with her cousin's return address, was lawfully hers, she told police.
    But to investigators, the money smelled, both literally and figuratively, like marijuana. So they took it, and they don't plan to give it back — even though Beveridge wasn't arrested in the March incident and likely won't ever be charged with a crime associated with the money.
    "I thought all along, 'How could they do that? How can they do that?' " Beveridge says.
    It's called the federal civil asset forfeiture process, and it has become a popular tool for investigators targeting people they suspect of illegally selling pot grown under the guise of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.
    Investigators say Oregon, and Southern Oregon in particular, is a source of black-market marijuana grown by participants in the OMMP, who ship it throughout the country and wait for their proceeds — as much as $7,000 per pound — to reach them, often in boxes mailed or shipped for overnight delivery.
    Sometimes the marijuana is grown strictly for export to states such as New York, Tennessee, Florida and Wisconsin, which don't have medical-marijuana programs and where pot is in high demand, police say. Sometimes it's excess marijuana grown legally under the program by growers who cross the line from OMMP participants to drug traffickers.
    While some big growing operations uncovered by police have resulted in criminal charges, prosecutors are increasingly using the federal civil forfeiture process to take money they suspect came from illegal sales of pot grown under the medical marijuana program.
    Civil forfeiture allows police to seize money or property believed to have been used in illegal activities without having to first convict — or even charge — a person of a crime. Forfeiture is a handy tool for taking the profit out of medical marijuana, police say, because the burden of proof is lighter than in criminal cases, and the process targets only the money, not the person.
    "Sometimes we don't prove the criminal case, but we are disrupting that operation," says Medford police Lt. Brett Johnson, who heads the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement task force, known as MADGE.
    "They're using the medical marijuana program as a guise," Johnson says. "It gives them limited liability while they're growing. (But) it's not about the program. It's about drug dealers."
    A review of federal court records by the Mail Tribune shows that forfeiture cases involving medical marijuana growers are on the rise. In 2011, the federal government filed 25 drug-related civil forfeiture cases in U.S. District Court in Oregon. Twelve of those cases were specifically related to medical-marijuana growers and cardholders.
    Through the first 11 months of 2012, 11 civil cases with specific ties to medical marijuana were filed by federal prosecutors in Oregon.
    By contrast, just one of the 18 drug-related civil forfeiture cases filed in 2010 involved money investigators suspected was gained through marijuana grown under OMMP. Federal prosecutors later dropped that case.
    Since Aug. 5, 2011, 21 of the 36 drug-related civil forfeiture cases filed in federal court in Oregon have involved people who were part of the OMMP, easily outstripping cases involving other drugs such as methamphetamine and heroin.
    In one 2011 case, police seized $120,420 in cash and $33,525 worth of precious metals from a registered Grants Pass medical-marijuana grower accused of shipping pot to the East Coast. In another, $6,600 in cash was seized after it was mailed in March 2012 from Oklahoma to a medical-marijuana grower in Eugene. The grower was seemingly in compliance with OMMP grow rules, affidavits show, but he furnished what police considered to be conflicting and hazy reasons for the shipment of cash.
    In some instances, the federal government is using forfeiture to take land where medical marijuana has been grown. Forfeitures cases were filed last month on two Applegate Valley farms raided by Drug Enforcement Administration agents Sept. 18.
    One, High Hopes Farm, was used to grow more marijuana than allowed under OMMP, police say. In the other case, a neighbor of High Hopes Farm may lose his property for renting a small portion of his 156-acre ranch to High Hopes owner Jim Bowman to grow medical marijuana, court documents state.
    In the past 15 months in Oregon, the U.S. government has laid claim to more than $255,000 in cash, six properties, two weapons and three vehicles in cases where OMMP is specifically cited in court affidavits. Another $314,184 and a vehicle seized in 2011 in Portland were described as proceeds from pot grown in Northern California under that state's medical-marijuana program.
    "We'll certainly use every tool available to us, especially civil forfeiture, and especially when we can trace it to medical marijuana," Medford police Chief Tim George says.
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