Medical-marijuana dispensaries – First county trial ends in acquittal

By Mark Morey |  Published in Yakima Herald-Republic

Valtino Hicks awaits the jury to return a verdict, and does so within twenty-five minutes, sending a signal to prosecutors to think twice before wasting resources on medical marijuana cases. (Photo credit: Mark Morey/YHR)

Yakima County’s first trial over a so-called medical-marijuana dispensary or collective quickly ended in acquittal Thursday afternoon.

The Superior Court jury that heard the charges against Valtino Hicks of Yakima returned its verdict in less than 25 minutes, unusually quick for almost any criminal trial.

At least two other local cases are pending in which a medical-marijuana argument could be raised.

The issue remains controversial across the state at political and legal levels. King County has been the most visible in declining to prosecute marijuana dispensaries, and legislation advanced this week that would take steps toward creating a framework for legal dispensaries.

The Yakima County prosecutor’s office offered no immediate comment on the verdict or whether the outcome of the Hicks case would affect prosecution policy.

Defense attorney George Hansen declined to comment in detail on the verdict, but he said he spoke with a few of the jurors, “who indicated that they needed to see more from the state.”

The jury returned its verdict in spite of the fact that Judge Rob Lawrence-Berrey prohibited testimony regarding a medical-marijuana card that Hicks said he possessed.

The prosecution maintained that he was responsible for a 201-plant growing operation at his home that far exceeded the 15-plant supply allowed for medical-marijuana patients or anyone who provides them with the drug. The plants were confiscated.

Hicks’ defense called a half-dozen witnesses who said that they were either patients or authorized providers for patients.

Hicks was described as a passionate advocate for medical marijuana who is continuing to take horticulture classes and is committed to the cause despite his legal problems.

But in closing arguments, deputy prosecutor Leanne Foster suggested to the jury that Hicks’ viewpoint on the issue had nothing to do with the current law.

“Marijuana is still a controlled substance, whether Mr. Hicks likes it or not,” she told the jury.

Hicks was arrested in March 2010 after police received a tip that a marijuana-growing operation was being run out of a home he occupied with his mother in the 900 block of Central Avenue.

Hicks, whose criminal history includes drug-related convictions, was ultimately arrested on charges alleging that he was manufacturing marijuana and possessed it with intent to deliver.

Although Foster highlighted the fact that Hicks had a digital scale, common for drug dealers, no evidence was presented of street-level marijuana deals.

The home was promoted via a website as a place where qualifying patients could receive marijuana. His mother, who was not called to testify at trial, pointed out in an earlier interview with the Herald-Republic that illegal drug dealers would rarely advertise their efforts on the Internet.

The website is still up, although a phone number listed on it was out of service Thursday.

The defense maintained that he was doing nothing more than providing a place where others could grow marijuana. “There was no intent to deliver proven by the state,” Hansen told the jury.

The state’s voters approved a medical-marijuana initiative in 1998, but advocates say that the law does little to provide patients with a clear legal source for the drug, which remains illegal at the federal level.

Under one possible interpretation of the law, large grows would be illegal even for medical purposes. But advocates counter that the state’s statute is silent on the issue.

Yakima defense attorney Greg Scott, who is handling two other cases charged by county prosecutors in which he expects to make a medical-marijuana argument, said marijuana is the only legal drug for which a prescription is not a clear-cut defense.

“I think the Legislature needs to clarify exactly what it is they will allow and what it is they will not allow,” Scott said.

The Legislature is considering allowing limited dispensaries, although it’s unclear what form the law would ultimately take.

The law faces opposition from several sides, including the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, according to news reports.

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