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Abuse of the system?

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.

"Law enforcement has said from Day One that we're not opposed to sick people getting their marijuana," George says. "Oregon needs to look at OMMP and make some changes to make it reasonable. Right now, it's not reasonable. Civil forfeiture is one of the ways we can take the profit out of abusing it."

Eugene defense attorney Brian Michaels believes it's the investigators doing the abusing.

Michaels, who defends accused OMMP abusers in civil forfeiture cases, says he believes that police assume medical-marijuana growers are traffickers.

"It's undeniable at this point that there's an extraordinary backlash against medical marijuana, bordering on bigotry, in Oregon," Michaels says.

"Just because someone has more plants than he or she is allowed doesn't mean they're shipping it across state lines," Michaels says.

He says the use of the federal civil forfeiture law — without any criminal charges being filed or evidence of criminal activity being presented — violates due process rights.

"I think there's a deliberate effort to exploit the looseness of the federal forfeiture process to pretty much steal money from people," Michaels says.

Many of the recent civil cases involving cash intercepted in the mail are similar to the one that landed Beveridge in hot water. Her package was first detected in March by a drug-sniffing dog at the FedEx facility at the Medford airport. The package appeared to have been sealed in a way that drug dealers use to conceal the residual smell of marijuana on money, court documents state.

Medford police received a warrant to search the package and discovered the cash, court affidavits state. When police went to Beveridge's residence, they saw what appeared to be a harvested marijuana garden, and a check of her OMMP status showed she had an expired card, records show.

When police looked into Beveridge's casino story, it either didn't match facts they unearthed or was unverifiable, an affidavit states. She told police she grew a dozen plants during the 2011 growing season under OMMP, but a spider mite infestation limited her to four plants, the affidavit states.

She claimed an income of just $800 a month from binding rugs and selling wooden roses at flea markets, and she had no checking or savings accounts, the affidavit states. She also has past drug convictions, the affidavit states.

Though no illegally sold marijuana was found or tied to Beveridge, and no criminal charges have been filed against her, police filed a forfeiture claim on the money because of "inconsistencies and improbabilities" in her explanation of where it came from.

Beveridge is contesting the seizure.

Leslie Westphal, the assistant U.S. attorney who filed the civil forfeiture case, calls Beveridge's casino story "ridiculous." But she says investigators would have to exhaust extensive resources to pursue her case criminally. Under civil forfeiture, however, they don't have to prove Beveridge is a criminal. They just have to show it's more likely than not that her story doesn't add up.

"Civil forfeiture is less expensive for the government and makes a better statement," Westphal says. "It has a role, no question.

"I think that's the answer — take the profit away," Westphal says. "To take the profit away is probably the best means to attack the problem."

Beveridge, who says she does not like having to fight the civil forfeiture case, declined to discuss her case further.

"If there's a chance to get my money back, I don't want to ruin it," she says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Abuse of the system?