MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) - Federal authorities are increasingly using asset-forfeiture laws to seize money and property from people they believe are exploiting Oregon's medical marijuana program.
A review of U.S. District Court records by the Medford Mail Tribune newspaper shows that in 2010, prosecutors filed just one forfeiture case to seize money related to marijuana that was grown under the program. Last year, there were a dozen such cases, and there were 11 in the first 11 months of this year.
Civil forfeiture laws allow police to seize the proceeds of illegal activity without necessarily filing criminal charges against those involved.
In one 2011 case, police seized more than $120,000 in cash and nearly $34,000 worth of precious metals from a registered Grants Pass medical-marijuana grower accused of shipping pot to the East Coast.
In another case, investigators took $6,600 in cash after it was mailed in March 2012 from Oklahoma to a medical-marijuana grower in Eugene. The grower was seemingly in compliance with state grow rules, but he furnished what police considered to be confused reasons for the shipment of cash, affidavits showed.
In the past 15 months in Oregon, the U.S. government has laid claim to more than $255,000 in cash, six properties, two weapons and three vehicles in cases where the Oregon medical marijuana program is specifically cited in court affidavits. Another $314,184 and a vehicle seized in 2011 in Portland were described as proceeds from pot grown in Northern California under that state's medical-marijuana program.
"We'll certainly use every tool available to us, especially civil forfeiture, and especially when we can trace it to medical marijuana," Medford police Chief Tim George says. "Law enforcement has said from Day One that we're not opposed to sick people getting their marijuana. Oregon needs to look at OMMP and make some changes to make it reasonable. Right now, it's not reasonable. Civil forfeiture is one of the ways we can take the profit out of abusing it."
Investigators say Oregon, and Southern Oregon in particular, is a source of black-market marijuana grown by participants in the OMMP, who ship it throughout the country and wait for their proceeds - as much as $7,000 per pound - to reach them, often in boxes mailed or shipped for overnight delivery.
Many of the forfeiture cases involve intercepted shipments of cash.
One got Sherry Beveridge of Grants Pass in trouble: A package addressed to her arrived at the FedEx facility in Medford containing just under $30,000 last March. A drug-sniffing dog singled out the package because the cash smelled like marijuana, police say.
Questioned about the money, Beveridge told police she got lucky at some casinos during a road trip to South Dakota, and then asked her cousin to ship her winnings to her. At Beveridge's home, police found a recently harvested marijuana garden. She had an expired card from Oregon's medical marijuana program
The cops didn't buy her story, and they aren't giving her the money back - even though she still hasn't been charged with any crime.
"I thought all along, 'How could they do that?'" Beveridge says.
Leslie Westphal, the assistant U.S. attorney who filed the civil forfeiture case, calls Beveridge's casino story "ridiculous." But she says investigators would have to exhaust extensive resources to pursue her case criminally. Under civil forfeiture, however, they don't have to prove Beveridge is a criminal. They just have to show it's more likely than not that her story doesn't add up.
"Civil forfeiture is less expensive for the government and makes a better statement," Westphal says. "To take the profit away is probably the best means to attack the problem."
Information from: Mail Tribune, http://www.mailtribune.com/