Billings police take on duty of delivering medical pot when parcel services won't
By KAHRIN DEINES Billings Gazette | Posted: Saturday, July 3, 2010 11:15 pm
BILLINGS - The conflict between state and federal laws over the legality of medical marijuana is forcing some law enforcement officers to take on the unwelcome duty of delivering pot that caregivers attempt to ship through a parcel service.
Over the past year, the Billings Police Department has received an increasing number of calls from FedEx and UPS workers who discover packages containing what appears to be legal medical marijuana. A police investigator must then pick up the package, make phone calls to determine whether it is a legal product produced by a medical marijuana caregiver who is registered with the state and notify the distributor to retrieve the shipment.
All that can add up to several hours of police time. Then, the caregiver may not pick up their product, saddling the cops with returning the marijuana to them personally.
"We don't want to be in the middle as a broker," said Billings Police Chief Rich St. John. "We're wasting a lot of time investigating and looking into legitimate businesses."
Montana's medical marijuana law allows caregivers to possess six plants or 1 ounce of marijuana for every patient. Both patients and caregivers must register with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, and patients must identify who is their caregiver.
Despite this limited legalization of marijuana for some medical uses, the parcel services refuse to transport the drug, even if it stays within the state's borders.
"Although we understand Montana has passed a law and citizens are permitted to ship it and use it under state law, federal law criminalizes the possession of marijuana, so as a result, FedEx is not going to take the risk of criminal prosecution by accepting such shipments," said Sally Davenport, a FedEx spokeswoman.
The resulting predicament is extremely frustrating for narcotics detectives, especially when there is a risk that the marijuana providers involved may not be fully complying with the state's law.
"If everything turns out fine, we've just wasted our detective for several hours," said Sgt. Brian Korell, who leads the department's City-County Special Investigations Unit. "I'm paying a guy to investigate a legal business when I should be paying him to investigate true criminals."
But in one recent worst-case scenario, police were notified by federal agents that they had identified a detective returning pot to a home under video surveillance.
Tom Daubert, who heads the medical marijuana advocacy group Patients and Families United, said tax dollars should not be spent paying officers to reunite caregivers with their products when they are ignoring the parcel services' shipping rules.
"Caregivers shouldn't ship cannabis in that way at all, and if they choose to take that risk, they shouldn't expect the delivery to be made," Daubert said.
Nevertheless, Korell said, the marijuana has a rightful owner and it cannot be destroyed without creating a legal liability for the department.
"We are in a very, very difficult situation with this, and we are trying to do the best we can for all parties," Korell said.