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Irony in Montana medical marijuana busts



Last December, Shane Haberlock of the Montana Narcotics Bureau sent a letter to all the state's law enforcement agencies detailing the Montana Marijuana Eradication Program. The program, funded by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, has existed since at least 1985. It's supposed to help defray the costs of marijuana cultivation investigations. Haberlock says he sends the letter annually to remind law enforcement agencies of the available funding.

The letter includes instructions: Send confiscated marijuana samples to Mahmoud A. ElSohly, a research professor at the University of Mississippi Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, where, as director of the Marijuana Project, he oversees the country's only federally approved marijuana farm.

Haberlock says MMEP funding contributed to last year's federal raids of about 30 state-licensed medical marijuana operations, but he doesn't know how much. Typically, he says, the DEA reimburses state agencies between $9,000 and $15,000 per year, roughly, depending on the number of cultivation investigations. In 2010, according to Denver-based DEA Special Agent Mike Turner, Montana law enforcement agencies raided 11 indoor and four outdoor marijuana grow sites, seizing a total of 850 marijuana plants and arresting 19 people. "There is not a whole lot of activity ... up in Montana, based on seizures, anyhow," Turner says. Only a handful of states had fewer.

Nationwide, the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program funded the seizures of 9,866,776 indoor plants and 464,419 outdoor plants in 2010. The vast majority—nearly 7.4 million plants—were eradicated in California.

So, back to Montana's medical marijuana raids: At Ole Miss's Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, the confiscated samples are tested for THC content, the main psychotropic compound in marijuana. The institute's farm grows its own samples on behalf of the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Those plants are used in clinical studies around the country, ElSohly told The New York Times, "to see if the active ingredient in this plant is useful for pain, nausea, glaucoma, for AIDS patients and so on."

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