AMHERST — 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.
Margaret Holcomb said she was growing the plant as medicine, a way to ease arthritis and glaucoma and help her sleep at night. 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.
In a joint raid, the Massachusetts National Guard and State Police entered her yard and cut down the solitary plant in what her son, Tim Holcomb, said was a “pretty shocking” action — one that he argues constitutes unlawful surveillance and illegal search and seizure.
“It’s scary as hell,” said Tim Holcomb.
Holcomb said he was at his mother’s home eating a late lunch with his sister when they heard whirring blades and looked up to see a military-style helicopter circling the property, with two men crouching in an open door and holding a device that he suspects was a thermal imager to detect marijuana plants.
Margaret Holcomb was not home at the time.
Within 10 minutes of the helicopter departing, several vehicles arrived at the home, including a pickup truck with a bed filled with marijuana plants seized at other locations, and several State Police troopers, including one who flashed his badge.
“He asked me if I knew there was a marijuana plant growing on the property. I didn’t answer the question. I asked, ‘What are you doing here?’” Holcomb recalled.
Holcomb said he was told that as long as he did not demand that a warrant be provided to enter the property or otherwise escalate the situation, authorities would file no criminal charges.
“’We just want the illegal contraband,’” Holcomb recalled the officer saying. Margaret Holcomb does not have a medical card authorizing her to grow or possess marijuana.
Margaret Holcomb said she is “not a huge social activist” but she is ready to stand up in this case, in which she feels like her civil rights were violated. If she’s unable to get medical marijuana by other means, she said, she may grow another plant.
“I’m prepared to take actions if I need to,” Margaret Holcomb said. “I don’t picture them out here and putting an 81-year-old woman in jail.”
State police spokesman David Procopio confirmed in an email that State Police and National Guard enforcement occurred in the Amherst and Northampton area Sept. 21. He said the plant at Margaret Holcomb’s home was one of 44 found on various properties outside and in plain view that day.
“At each location where property owners were home, troopers identified themselves and explained the purpose for the visit, why the plants were being grown illegally, and seized the plants,” Procopio said. None of the property owners was charged with a crime.
The seizures included an additional 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 actions have become commonplace since the 2012 law that made medical marijuana legal in Massachusetts, according to Northampton attorney Michael Cutler.
“The exact same stuff happened last year,” said Cutler, who specializes in helping clients understand the state’s medical marijuana law and recently participated in drafting the language of the Nov. 8 ballot initiative that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
The latest enforcement push comes almost exactly a year after prominent medical marijuana proponent Ezra Parzybok was prosecuted after a Massachusetts National Guard helicopter observed plants growing in his backyard in Northampton. State police seized 67 marijuana plants, 20 one-gallon bags of marijuana, 59 jars of hash oil, three scales, a heat sealer, numerous ledgers and receipts and $1,640 in cash.
Parzybok was charged with possession of marijuana and hash oil with intent to distribute. Last November, he admitted to sufficient facts to support a guilty finding and was placed on 90 days probation, allowing him to emerge without a criminal record if he abided by the law during that period.
Cutler said it’s likely that authorities are using budgeted funds, prior to the end of the federal fiscal year Saturday, to gas up helicopters and do flyovers.
“We’re seeing the last throes of police hostility to the changing laws,” Cutler said. “They’re taking the position that if it’s in plain view, it’s somehow illegal.”
Another raid occurred on Sept. 13 in Wendell at the home of residents who have valid medical marijuana cards.
In that case, authorities seized marijuana plants from a couple because their plants were not secure and may have been visible from the street, both alleged violations of the law.
Law enforcement may itself be stretching the definition of “plain view,” Cutler said. And he wonders whether raiding backyards constitutes a wise use of public resources.
“Is this the way we want 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 marijuana plants that are “outside of a locked, enclosed location that is fully inaccessible to any other person” each year during the summer growing season.
The recently seized plants were transported to a storage building at the Massachusetts State Police headquarters in Framingham, where all will be destroyed in controlled burns at an incineration site. None of the property owners are facing charges.
Police chief unaware
Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said he was unaware that such enforcement actions were taking place in Amherst. Mary Carey, spokeswoman for the Northwestern District Attorney’s office, said the district attorney had no role in the operation.
Sylvia Smith, who lives near Holcomb, said she was unaware of the marijuana plant growing on the neighboring property or the raid. Margaret Holcomb said she has informed some neighbors about the presence of the marijuana plant.
Tim Holcomb said that he finds it troubling law enforcement is occurring without bringing charges. “If the state has a problem with people being discreet, the state has to use due process,” Holcomb said.
He is also left wondering if part of the motivation behind such raids is so that patients can’t self-medicate, protecting the lucrative market of medical marijuana. He hopes to have a community meeting to address the topic and promote legalization. The consequence of marijuana being illegal, and drug laws, has led to a growing prison population and racial profiling, he said.
Tim Holcomb said his mother will see what legal avenues she can pursue.
“She’s called a criminal lawyer and plans to grow one for next year,” Tim Holcomb said of planting another marijuana plant.
For now, though, Margaret Holcomb may have to turn to getting a medical marijuana card. She worries about the challenges in getting a doctor to sign off on her need, and the costs of obtaining medicine with the only dispensary in Hampshire County provided by New England Treatment Access at 118 Conz St. in Northampton.
Holcomb said she understands the risks of growing another marijuana plant. But at her age and with her medical problems, she says she may just decide to plant the seed.
Scott Merzbach can be reached at [email protected]