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DEA seizes medical pot after explosion

SANTA FE – Medical marijuana is legal in New Mexico, but the federal Drug Enforcement Administration seized and destroyed numerous pot plants from a licensed dispensary in Santa Fe after a recent explosion burned two employees.

The Santa Fe police asked the DEA to help investigate after the blast at the NewMexiCann Natural Medicine dispensary in Santa Fe on July 23. Two employees were seriously burned as they were using a process that involves soaking marijuana in butane and then using propane heat to extract THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, to produce concentrated hash oil.

Eduardo Chavez, a spokesman for the DEA, said agents acted in accordance with federal law when they took the pot plants.

“Right now we’re following very specific protocol with how we handle medical marijuana investigations,” Chavez said. “When we showed up, we helped with what we could, but (marijuana) is still illegal under federal law, and we had to act in accordance with federal law. We’re not lawmakers, but we enforce the laws that go forward.”

Police Lt. Andrea Dobyns said the DEA was brought in on the explosion investigation for safety reasons and to help secure the NewMexiCann lab on San Mateo Lane because this was the first incident of its kind that the SFPD has dealt with and the DEA is “trained in these matters.”

The day of the blast, Dobyns said, the DEA was the only agency the police could find to help secure the building. “When we called them in, it was all about safety,” Dobyns said. “(Officers) were concerned that the extractor was still leaking. We were still believing that it was unsafe. The last thing on officers’ minds was marijuana. It was all about safety. No one else that was called was able to assist.”

She also said it was her understanding DEA agents would not have taken any plants if everything in the lab was in working order. “That’s how it was explained to me,” she said.

Mayor Javier Gonzales, who supports legalizing marijuana, provided the Journal with a written statement when asked about the city police calling in the DEA. “We’ve made it clear what direction Santa Fe is moving in,” Gonzales said. “I fully support the state’s Medical Marijuana program and we don’t want to throw any more taxpayer dollars at locking up people for possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal recreational use.”

Last year, the Santa Fe City Council passed a marijuana decriminalization measure that gives SFPD officers the option of issuing $25, non-criminal city citations for possession of an ounce or less of pot.

“But federally, this is still a gray area,” Gonzales said, “and as long as that discrepancy exists you’re going to have situations like this. I haven’t spoken to the former chief (Eric Garcia, who resigned as police chief days after the explosion) about the decision to notify the DEA, so I can’t speculate to the thinking there.

“In the meantime, we’re proactively reaching out to other dispensaries and working on education that can help prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again. I believe our policy is the much more progressive, forward-thinking policy, and I hope that Congress can catch up, and catch up quickly so that small businesses in Santa Fe that are operating legally under state and local law can be secure in the knowledge that their livelihood won’t be put at risk.”

DEA ‘overzealous’

Emily Kaltenbach, state director of the New Mexico Drug Policy Alliance, said, “We definitely question why the DEA pulled the plants. It had nothing to do with the accident.

“The DEA seems to be overzealous when it comes to these kinds of issues.”

She noted that federal legislation passed as part of a budget bill earlier this year was supposed to limit enforcement against dispensaries and users of medical pot. But recent news reports, including by The Washington Post, say the U.S. Department of Justice is interpreting the measure as merely preventing the DOJ from trying to stop states from implementing medical marijuana laws and doesn’t necessarily prevent enforcement actions against individuals or entities.

Nicholas Montoya, 29, and Aaron Smith, 28, were badly burned in the explosion at NewMexiCann. Smith is in satisfactory condition at University of New Mexico Hospital, and Montoya has been upgraded from critical to serious condition.

NewMexiCann proprietor Len Goodman referred questions about the pot plant seizure to the business’s attorney, Marc Lowry, who did not return phone messages from the Journal . An attorney for the Cannabis Producers of New Mexico, which includes several medical pot providers, had no comment.

The New Mexico Department of Health oversees the state’s medical marijuana program. A spokesman for the department, Kenny Vigil, did not directly address the DEA’s seizure of pot plants from a licensed New Mexico producer.

“The Department of Health is not the investigating agency in this incident; however, as we have stated in the past, the department will cooperate with investigators,” Vigil said in an email.