What started as a small-time drug raid that never should have occurred has now blossomed into a confrontation between a Colorado judge and the United States Justice Department. Hayden resident Donald Nord, 57, suffers a variety of maladies and uses marijuana for relief. He is a licensed medical marijuana patient in compliance with Colorado's medical marijuana law, passed by voters in 2000. Local police knew he was a medical marijuana patient and was growing his own medicine. But that didn't stop the Grand Routt and Moffatt Narcotics Enforcement Team (GRAMNET), a federally-funded anti-drug task force, from obtaining a search warrant, raiding Nord's home, and removing his lights, plants, and related materials on October 14.
Nord has been totally disabled since the mid-1980s, he said, citing a litany of health problems, including phlebitis and blood clots, gall bladder surgery, pancreas problems, removal of a kidney, diabetes, and necropathy in the soles of his feet. "It is very difficult for me to walk," he said, "it feels like there are hard rocks in my shoes." But that's not all. Last week, Nord was again hospitalized, this time for prostate surgery and bladder infections from previous hospitalizations. "I have a very hard time relaxing enough at night to where I can get to sleep so I use marijuana for pain and to get rest. I am on complete disability and my income is $655 a month," he told DRCNet.
"I told them I was a registered medical marijuana patient, but they said they're federal agents and my certificate doesn't mean anything to them," Nord related. "I don't think that's right. The DEA agent, Doug Cortinovis, wanted to throw me in jail, but Chief Jody Lenahan said he didn't think that was a good idea given my medical conditions. The chief and I sat at the table and talked while Cortinovis searched the place. I had shown the chief my certificate when I first got it. He knew I had it. He said he hoped this didn't hurt our friendship."
Nord's lawyer, Kris Hammond, sent a copy of Nord's certificate to Routt County Judge James Garrecht. Prosecutors filed no charges against Nord, and Garrett ordered that Nord's property be returned, including two ounces of marijuana. On December 23, the task force brought back Nord's equipment, but not his medicine. A week after that, Hammond filed a contempt motion against the task force members "for failing to follow the Colorado Constitution and a judge's orders" by not returning the marijuana.
On January 7, Judge Garrecht cited the nine officers for contempt of court and ordered them to appear in court February 2 "to show cause, if any they have, why they should not be punished for contempt, for neglect and refusal to comply with the Order of the Court."
That order got the attention of the feds, but not in the way Nord hoped. On January 17, DEA spokesman Jeff Dorschner announced that the US Attorney's Office in Denver would represent not only DEA agent Cortinovis, but also the eight police officers from local jurisdictions. The state officers were deputized DEA agents, Dorschner explained. A week after that, the feds played what they hope is their trump card. On January 24, federal prosecutors filed a motion in federal court, asking that the case be removed from the state court and that the contempt charges be dropped.
Moving the case to the federal courts "... is proper when either a state court civil action or criminal prosecution is brought against a federal official, as long as the action for which the official is being questioned was undertaken under color of federal office," the feds argued.
As for the contempt charges, they wrote: "It is not the intent of officers or agents of the US to violate state law in the performance of their duties or to ignore orders of state court judges. In this instant, regrettably, such violation was mandated by federal law, a circumstance that is unfortunate and rare. Once GRAMNET members had in their custody contraband as defined by federal statute, they were required to follow federal law in the performance of their duties. Otherwise, they would have been subject to discipline and possibly termination or worse, for dereliction of their duties."
A hearing was set for Thursday, but DRCNet had received no information on its outcome by press time.
"These cops don't want to go to jail," said Nord's attorney, Kris Hammond. "Now they're claiming they're federal agents, although only one is DEA; the other guys are local. But they swore to be Jedi knights and now they claim the force protects them. County court was good enough for them when they used it to break into someone's house and take their stuff," Hammond said. "But when the county court wants something from them, they go to federal court."
One could be forgiven for assuming that Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar would be interested in a case where law enforcement officers are defying a state judge's court, but he is not. Salazar has been a prominent foe of medical marijuana, publicly urging federal officials to prosecute all marijuana arrests in Colorado, even those of certified medical marijuana patients. He and Gov. Bill Owens also warned doctors they could face federal prosecution if they wrote medical marijuana recommendations.
Here's what Deputy Attorney General Ken Lane told DRCNet about the case of the contemptuous cops: "We have nothing to do with or say about this matter."
If state officials are not going to uphold the law, said Hammond, there are other options. "The answer is two-fold," said Hammond. "We have to choke them off at the top or at the bottom. In Washington, there is a bill, the Hinchey amendment, which would prevent the feds from doing what they're doing. It would require them to obey state law in medical marijuana cases. As it is now, the feds come in, get a search warrant knowing it's medical marijuana, destroy the pot, and never file charges. It's crazy -- we're giving them taxpayer money to run around and refuse to obey the law," he said.
"Back here, local government needs to say we won't give you any money if you are violating the laws," Hammond continued. "This medical marijuana law was passed by the will of the people of Colorado. This is a rather conservative state, but conservatives are supposed to be for states' rights. People here need to stand up for that principle."
Hammond, who is accepting token payments of $100 a month from Nord, said he didn't know how far he could pursue the case. "I've talked to the Colorado ACLU, but they didn't seem too interested," he said. "Donald could sure use some kind of legal defense fund."