11.07.16 1:34 PM ET
On the morning on July 17, 2015 law enforcement agents stormed the Reading, Mass. home of Bill Downing. Armed with machine guns and dressed in flak jackets, the inter-agency force, comprised of Boston Police, local police, the DEA, and the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council SWAT team conducted a sweep of the 57-year-old long-time marijuana activist’s home, rousing his wife and two sons out of bed at gunpoint.
“They held my family under armed guard, rummaged through my house, took all my family savings from a fire proof safe in a basement,” Downing said in an interview. “They found very little. They were, of course, looking for a large quantity of marijuana or other drugs and guns.”
At the same time, about 20 miles away in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, authorities were conducting a raid of his store, CBD Please, where they seized hundreds of grams of non-psychoactive cannabis products like hemp oils. In January of this year, Downing was charged with eight counts, including possession with intent to distribute a Class D drug, marijuana.
“They even took the money in my wallet,” he said.
Just this last week, Downing, the treasurer of the Mass Cannabis Reform Coalition, accepted a plea in which he would admit to being responsible to 7 counts of distribution, despite the fact that the Massachusetts Department of Health has come out and stated explicitly that CBD, the hemp oil Downing was selling is, in fact, legal.
“Yet they wanted to keep my money and everything. They held my money and said if i didn’t take a plea they were going to take it,” he said. “I was forced to admit responsibility, so they reduced my charge to civilian citation so there’s no record.”
In the meantime, his store has resumed business, but the seizure of much of his inventory, and the negative attention from being raided has driven much of his customer base away. He’s still yet to receive the money taken from his home, and hasn’t heard from the DEA when that will be. He’s still on the hook for at least $10,000 in legal fees, he says.
All of this come as Massachusetts gets set to vote on a ballot initiative that would further relax the state’s already relatively permissive marijuana laws. In 2008, the state decriminalized the possession of small amounts of the drug—under an ounce—and in 2012 a medical marijuana law was passed, leading to the opening of a handful of stores around the state, despite much foot-dragging by government officials still opposed to the law.
Likewise this year, voters in California, Florida, Nevada, Maine, Arizona, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Montana, and North Dakota will weigh in on legalization and medical marijuana options on the ballot.
To the consternation of marijuana and civil liberties activists, Downing hasn’t been the only one to come across a still selectively draconian law enforcement approach to marijuana. In September of this year a helicopter landed in the garden of 81-year-old Amherst woman Margaret Holcomb, as part of a series of such raids around the area. Massachusetts National Guardsmen and state police promptly seized her single marijuana plant she had been cultivating to help her arthritis and glaucoma.
Earlier this summer, a similar raid was conducted on the home of an 81 year old Martha’s Vineyard cancer survivor, Paul Jackson, who cultivated a number of plants for use in medicinal tea. Jackson had used the tea to help his wife, now deceased, deal with the pain of pancreatic cancer.
“They find a couple dozen plants and they bust a couple of dozens elderly folks, and you know what it costs to run a helicopter?” Downing asks. “We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars an hour. Is that a good use of our resources to bust some old folks for plants?”
So why are authorities in Massachusetts seemingly ramping up enforcement of marijuana control when it seems likely, according to recent polls, that it’s about to become legal? Downing has a theory.
“It was the police acting as the political enforcement arm of the [Boston mayor Martin] Walsh administration,” he says.
Walsh, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, and Attorney General Maura Healey are among those opposed to Question 4, a ballot measure that would legalize and regulate the use of marijuana. Walsh, a recovering alcoholic, has spoken about marijuana’s potential as a gateway drug. Baker has compared the use of marijuana to the opioid crisis currently ravaging New England states, despite the fact it appears fewer people take opioids in states with medical marijuana laws, as a recent study has shown. Researchers in Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, have said they haven’t seen any such correlation, or other health concerns, since it was passed.
Read more at the Daily Beast