Sometime last year, a Web site went up promising to help qualifying patients in Central Washington get access to medical marijuana.
The NorthWest Alliance for the Healing Cure, as it was called, promised "help for people looking for an alternative to expensive man-made medications." It listed a toll-free number and an address, 907 Central Ave., in Yakima -- a house owned by 59-year-old arthritis sufferer and medical marijuana user Asja Carter.
On March 1, acting on an informant's tip, Yakima police arrived at 907 Central Ave. with a search warrant. Carter answered the door and told them she was a medical marijuana patient, but her doctor's recommendation for the drug had expired.
Police confiscated about 200 plants in various stages of growth and arrested Carter's 34-year-old son, Valtino Hicks, who arrived home during the search. He's been in jail since, charged with manufacturing and intent to distribute marijuana. He's scheduled for arraignment on those charges today.
The Hicks case pulls Yakima into the growing debate over whether cooperative growing operations are allowed under the medical marijuana law passed by the state's voters in 1998.
The law, which allows qualifying marijuana users to grow their own or to designate a provider, is muddy on the issue of collective growing, and prosecutions reflect that. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, for instance, has won praise from medical marijuana advocates for declining to prosecute collectives or co-ops while prosecutors in other areas of the state, including Spokane and Olympia, have pursued cases against such operations.
How medical marijuana works in Washington
Medical marijuana law in Washington state is different from California's well-publicized system, which allows anyone with a medical marijuana card to purchase the drug from large-scale dispensaries. Here, those who get a recommendation from their doctor are essentially on their own to either grow marijuana or find a provider.
"There's no safe or regulated program," said Ben Livingston, a spokesman for the Seattle-based Cannabis Defense Coalition, which has lobbied on medical marijuana issues before the state Legislature. "There's no (California-style) 'green card.' There's nothing like that."
All a doctor's recommendation does for a medical marijuana user is provide an "affirmative defense" against prosecution under state law. That means there's no state registry, no list of providers and no hard information on how many medical marijuana patients there are in Washington. It also means there may be room for legal interpretation on a few points.
Under the law, a patient is allowed to possess a 60-day supply, which the state Department of Health ruled in 2008 is 24 ounces of marijuana and 15 plants. Because some patients are unable to grow their own, the law also stipulates that a provider can grow marijuana for one patient at a time. But that has left some uncertainty as to the status of collective grow operations like the one Carter says Hicks had in her house.
"There's nothing (in the statute) that allows that," said Donn Moyer, a spokesman for the Health Department. Yakima County Prosecutor Jim Hagarty, who said he wants to research the issue more before commenting on Hicks' case, said that was his understanding as well.
But, as Satterberg told The Seattle Times last month, "The law neither permits nor prohibits a collective operation."
As Livingston sees it, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for collective growing, from sharing expertise to diffusing the cost of expensive equipment, such as grow lights. There are also practical reasons why a medical marijuana patient might have more than 15 plants under one roof, he said.
"If two patients live together, can they grow 30 plants together?" he said. "That's where the question gets a little blurry for law enforcement."
The Hicks case
Valtino Hicks is not the perfect defendant for a test case on cooperative medical marijuana grows. He's got a lengthy criminal record, including previous convictions for burglary, theft, drug possession and dealing. According to the police report of his most recent arrest, Hicks was confrontational with police and, after being told to leave the house during the search, re-entered and tried to destroy dozens of the marijuana plants.
Carter, however, says she is confident her son was acting within the law as he understood it, hence the Web site -- one does not generally publicize one's actions unless he believes he's within the law, she pointed out. Hicks was not selling weed, she says; he was helping people in Central Washington who qualified for medical marijuana but didn't know how to get it. A patient would get in touch with Hicks, and Hicks would set them up to grow their own plants in Carter's home, where he also lived.
"It was strictly for patients," Carter said.
No money changed hands except what the 20-or-so patients kicked in for the power bill, which shot up by $500 a month from the growing equipment, Carter said. Hicks kept copies of every patient's medical marijuana physician recommendation.
"I tried to show the police the files when they were here," Carter said. "They didn't even look at them."
Both Hicks and Carter were patients themselves, he for recurring pain stemming from a car accident and she for arthritis that has worsened to the point where she can't walk without a cane or walker.
Carter said she relied on the marijuana Hicks grew for her, because the three different pills she had tried previously didn't offer enough relief and came with side effects such as liver damage. Other patients for whom Hicks helped grow marijuana at her house suffered from similar conditions or, in some cases, terminal diseases such as pancreatic cancer, she said.
Now, as the homeowner, she's worried about her own legal status. Her doctor's recommendation for marijuana had expired before the police arrived at her doorstep. Seattle attorney Aaron Pelley, an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana users, has been advising her even though so far she has not been charged.
"I consider her a very sympathetic character in this story," Pelley said. "But if the police wanted to, they could move forward with a case against her."
By Pat Muir
March 15, 2010