Why police can ruin confiscated marijuana, even if it’s legal, and why they don’t have to pay for it
Last week, the Sheriff’s Office in Ventura County, Calif., A mostly rural expanse of rugged mountains and coastal plains directly north of Los Angeles cut in half by two major freeways, delivered 25 pounds of what was once cannabis at Chelsea Sutula.
The cannabis belonged to Sutula, who last saw it in 2016, when Ventura County Sheriff’s Deputies seized the cannabis – valued at $ 350,000 – and an additional $ 34,000 in cash from Sespe Creek Collective, of which Sutula is the CEO.
Over the next five years, criminal charges against Sutula and his business partner were dropped. The money has been returned. But as the civil lawsuits brought by Sutula for the return of cannabis made their way through the courts, the cannabis was simply left in an evidence locker – attracting bugs, mold and slowly but surely becoming completely worthless.
This was the state the weed was in when police handed the jar to Sutula in brown paper bags, as the Ventura County Star reported.
The episode illustrates a lingering and still unresolved area of criminal process that, as cannabis is legalized in more and more states, is still unresolved by most state laws.
The legalization of marijuana means adults 21 and older in much of the United States can legally own cannabis, and commercial legalization means that businesses and individuals can often own much more.
But police still often seize cannabis on suspicion of wrongdoing – and although state law in many cases requires police to return any wrongly confiscated personal property, including cannabis, there is no has no uniform requirement that seized cannabis be properly stored.
And if not, there is no uniform requirement that the police compensate a private citizen for the destruction of their property.
For years, police in many states have argued that requiring them to keep seized cannabis in usable condition, just in case it turns out to be legal, prevents them from effectively investigating grow operations that may turn out to be. illegal.
The Oregon Police are obligated to maintain cannabis in usable condition and to pay its rightful owners compensation if it turns out to be legal, but this protection, granted by a 2019 state law, does not apply. applies only to medical cannabis.
Other states don’t even do much. In 2017, in a decision drafted by a judge who would then be on former President Donald Trump’s shortlist for U.S. Supreme Court candidates, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement of that state “may not” return the cannabis seized “in the course of the legal proceedings”. performance duties.
Returning legal cannabis to citizens from whom it should not have been confiscated in the first place is only permitted if it is “in accordance with federal and state law”. Since cannabis is still illegal under federal law, the mere fact that law enforcement returns it to a citizen is “similar to the distribution of a controlled substance,” as reported by the University of Colorado-Boulder in a press release.
But rulings in other states contradict Colorado’s conclusion, and one case shows that police can choose to seize cannabis years after legalization.
In August 2018, in a case entitled Smith v San Francisco Superior Court, a man successfully sued the San Francisco Police Department to force them to return 21.5 grams of cannabis seized from him after his arrest for disturbing the peace.
Smith was arrested in January 2018, more than 13 months after possession of up to an ounce became legal for all adults 21 and over in California.
The San Francisco County Superior Court Appeal Division ruled that state law requires California law enforcement officials to return “legally possessed” marijuana to owners. And they can do so without any threat of prosecution, since the police “already regularly handle controlled substances” in the normal course of their work, and since the Controlled Substances Act specifically grants qualified immunity to police “legally engaged in the process. the application of any law or municipal decree relating to controlled substances.
However, neither the decision of Black-smith nor does state law specify what state cannabis is stored. A state law proposed in 2014 that would have mandated “reasonable compensation” for anyone whose cannabis legally possessed cannabis and was returned in a damaged or unusable condition after the failed forfeiture by police before the legislature of the state. It has not been reintroduced since.
One rationale is that such protections are unnecessary after the legalization of marijuana. Police simply no longer seize small amounts from individuals, by this logic – and with high-profile seizures of tens of thousands of plants allegedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars gaining the most attention, it may be in largely correct.
However, the Smith incident of 2018 – and in San Francisco! – suggests that this is not always the case. And while her case is considered an outlier, Sutula’s Odyssey is a demonstration that legal cannabis operations run the risk of unwanted attention from law enforcement.
With the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing hemp production and with some hemp companies losing massive shipments of what they claim to be legal commodity due to police seizures, this problem is spreading to both CBD and Delta companies. 8 THC as well as to cannabis operations.
Sutula told the Ventura County Star that she plans to sue the state and seek compensation. In this, she may have a precedent on her side: In one case, in 2010, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office in central California paid $ 20,000 to a patient using medical cannabis for compensate her for six pounds of seized and destroyed cannabis, for which she had a legal claim.
If Sutula sues, wins, and collects a check, California police can be very careful about choosing who to raid and how, but in the absence of federal legalization, it may be years before that same courtesy does. be extended to cannabis users in other states.