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Marijuana plant seizures funded with $60,000 federal grant

  • This photo, sent in by Ellen Finkelstein, shows a U.S. Army helicopter she spotted on her way to the Northampton farmers’ market on Sept. 20, the day before a raid on an 81-year-old Amherst resident that yielded a single marijuana plant. Courtesy photo



Staff Writer
Friday, October 14, 2016

The seizure of marijuana plants at locations throughout Massachusetts, including a single plant grown by an Amherst grandmother to treat her glaucoma and arthritis, is funded by a $60,000 grant from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

The Massachusetts State Police and the Massachusetts National Guard, the agencies that conducted the Sept. 21 operation that yielded 44 plants in Amherst, Northampton and Hadley, including one plant at 81-year-old Margaret Holcomb’s home in South Amherst, are two of 128 agencies across the country participating in the Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program.

That program is likely to continue whether or not Massachusetts residents pass a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana, according to officials.

Timothy Desmond, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Boston, said in a telephone interview that the federal program has supported efforts in all 50 states for more than 30 years.

“This is part of a national drug control policy that funds state and local marijuana eradication pursuant to their state laws,” Desmond said.

David Procopio, spokesman for the State Police, said in an email Friday, Oct. 7, that the grant covers the costs of overtime pay for several narcotics unit troopers for the days they are performing these marijuana eradication missions.

The helicopter and air crew costs, though, are not associated with State Police, Procopio said.

Procopio added that the State Police and National Guard have received identical funding in prior years and will learn in January whether the federal government will again support marijuana enforcement work at the same level next year.

Data available on the DEA’s website shows that in Massachusetts in 2015, the operation found 3,138 plants growing outdoors at 116 sites, with four arrests made and four weapons seized. The previous year, 1,802 plants were found growing at 111 sites, with four arrests made, and no weapons seized.

Concern expressed

While some concern has been expressed by people who have learned about the action that led to the removal of Holcomb’s plant, which was spotted from a helicopter, as well as similar medical marijuana plants confiscated while being grown in Wendell, the operation does not allow discretion on whose plants to remove and whose to allow to continue to grow, Procopio said.

“We have no discretion to leave the plants,” Procopio said. “Once we have seen them we have to seize them. The discretion we have is in whether to seek criminal charges, and in most cases we do not do so.”

Procopio added that authorities are sympathetic to people who use medical marijuana responsibly, or whose loved ones do so, to ease pain caused by illness or disease.

“We of course support people’s right to use medical marijuana legally to improve their quality of life,” Procopio said. “But the law that prohibits unsecured, outdoor grows makes no distinction about the reasons or circumstances behind the grow.”

Northampton attorney Richard Evans, an expert on medical marijuana who has long pushed for legalization of the drug, said in an email that the Nov. 8 ballot question, which gives voters an opportunity to legalize recreational marijuana, could show how the evolution of attitudes toward the drug have changed.

But Evans anticipates the federally funded program will continue to provide money for states to remove marijuana being grown on private properties.

“If Question 4 passes, it’s not inconceivable that some state law enforcement agencies with budgets to burn will nevertheless take to the skies and look for horticultural scofflaws,” Evans said. “But hopefully most public officials will absorb the message from the voters that it’s time to get real about marijuana, and see that they stop.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.