All that remains of the solitary marijuana plant an 81-year-old grandmother had been growing behind her South Amherst home is a stump and a ragged hole in the ground.
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Margaret Holcomb said she was growing the plant as medicine, a way to ease arthritis and glaucoma and help her sleep at night.
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Tucked away in a raspberry patch and separated by a fence from any neighbors, the plant was nearly ready for harvest when a military-style helicopter and police descended on Sept. 21.
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In a joint raid, the Massachusetts National Guard and State Police entered her lawn and cut down the solitary plant in what her son, Tim Holcomb, said was a “pretty shocking” activity — one that he claims represents unlawful surveil and illegal search and seizure.
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“It’s frightening as hell,” said Tim Holcomb.
Holcomb said he was at his mom’s house eating a late lunch with his sister when they heard whirring blades and looked up to see a military-style chopper circling the property, with two men crouching in an open door and holding a device that he supposes was a thermal imager to find cannabis plants.
Within 10 minutes of the chopper departing, several vehicles arrived at the house, including several State Police troopers, and a pickup truck with a bed full of cannabis plants seized at other places.
He asked me if I understood there was a pot plant. I didn’t answer the question. I inquired, ‘what’re you doing here?’” Holcomb remembered.
Holcomb said he was told that as long as he didn’t demand that a warrant be supplied to enter the property or escalate the situation, no criminal charges would file.
“’We only need the prohibited contraband,’” Holcomb remembered the policeman saying. Margaret Holcomb doesn’t have a medical card authorizing her to grow or possess cannabis.
Margaret Holcomb said she’s “not a tremendous societal activist” but she’s prepared to stand up in this case, in which she feels like her civil rights were violated. If she’s not able to get medical cannabis by other means, she said, another plant may grow.
I ’m prepared if I want to to take actions,” Margaret Holcomb said. “I don’t imagine them outside here and setting an 81-year old girl in jail.”
State police spokesman David Procopio supported in an e-mail that State Police and National Guard enforcement happened in the Amherst and Northampton place Sept. 21. He said the plant at Margaret Holcomb’s house was one of 44 found on various properties outside and in clear view that day.
At each place where property owners were troopers captured the plants and explained the motive for the visit and identified themselves,” Procopio said. None of the property owners was charged with a crime.
The seizures contained an added 21 plants in Amherst, with 16 on Montague Road and five on Potwine Lane; two plants on Cross Path Road in Northampton; and 20 in Hadley, with 10 plants on Honey Pot Road, eight on River Road and two on Pine Hill Road.
Such enforcement measures have gotten common since the 2012 law that made medical marijuana legal in Massachusetts, based on Northampton lawyer Michael Cutler.
“The identical things occurred last year,” said Cutler, who specializes in helping customers understand the state’s medical cannabis law and recently participated in drafting the language of the Nov. 8 ballot initiative that would legalize the recreational use of cannabis.
The most recent enforcement drive comes almost exactly annually after a Massachusetts National Guard chopper found plants after leading medical marijuana proponent Ezra Parzybok was prosecuted. State police confiscated 67 pot plants, 20 one-gallon bags of grass, 59 jars of three scales, hash oil, a heat sealer, numerous ledgers and receipts cash in and $1,640.
Parzybok was charged with possession of cannabis and hash oil with intent to distribute. He was put on 90 days probation, enabling him to appear with no criminal record if he abided by the law during that span and acknowledged to sufficient facts to support a guilty finding.
Cutler said it’s likely that budgeted resources are being used by authorities, prior to the ending of the national fiscal year Saturday, to gas up choppers and do flyovers.
We ’re seeing the last throes of authorities hostility to the laws that were shifting,” Cutler said. “They’re taking the position that if it’s in clear view, it prohibited.”
Another raid happened on Sept. 13 in Wendell at the house of residents who have legal medical marijuana cards.
If so, cannabis plants were confiscated by authorities from a couple because their plants weren’t safe and may have been visible from the road, both alleged breaches of the law.
The definition of “clear perspective may be stretching,” Cutler said. And he wonders whether raiding backyards makes up a prudent use of public resources.
“Is this the way we need our taxpayer money spent, to hassle an 81-year old and law abiding patients?” Cutler said.
Procopio said that the Massachusetts National Guard Counter Drug Team — working under the Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program and using a Department of Justice grant — looks for pot plants that are “outside of a fast, enclosed place that’s completely inaccessible to any other man” each year during the summer growing season.
The plants that were lately seized were hauled to a storage building at the Massachusetts State Police headquarters in Framingham, where all will be ruined at an incineration site in controlled burns. None of the property owners are facing charges.
Police chief oblivious
Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said he was not aware that such enforcement measures were taking place in Amherst. Spokeswoman for the Northwestern District Attorney’s office, Mary Carey, said the district attorney had no part in the operation.
Sylvia Smith, who resides near Holcomb, said she was not aware of the cannabis plant growing on the raid or the abutting property. Margaret Holcomb said some neighbors have been told by her about the existence of the cannabis plant.
Tim Holcomb said that he finds it troubling law enforcement is happening without bringing charges. The state has to use due process If the state has a problem with folks being prudent,” Holcomb said.
He’s also left wondering if part of the motivation behind such raids is that patients can’t self-medicate, shielding the profitable market of medical cannabis. He expects to have a community meeting encourage legalization and to address the issue. Drug laws, and the effect of cannabis being illegal, has caused racial profiling and an increasing prison population, he said.
Tim Holcomb said his mom will see what legal paths she can pursue.
Of putting another pot plant “She’s called a criminal lawyer and strategies to grow one for next year,” Tim Holcomb said.