When federal Drug Enforcement Agency agents visited a Santa Fe medical cannabis dispensary after an explosion last week, they seized what local police originally described as "evidence" for an investigation. SFR has since learned that the federal agency yanked all the marijuana plants that were growing there and hauled them away for destruction.
Without more information, the seizure seems to be a shift in the understanding that the DEA would turn a blind eye to producers who have permission from a state to cultivate the plant that is still considered a banned substance by the federal government.
As investigators try to determine more details about what caused the explosion, suspected to have occurred during an extraction process at New MexiCann Natural Medicine's compound on West San Mateo Lane, attorney Marc Lowry says the management and staff are more concerned about the health and recovery of Nick Montoya, 29, and Aaron Smith, 28, who received third-degree burns and remain hospitalized.
Yet the loss of the 150 plants—conservatively valued at $750,000—will impact New MexiCann's fall harvest and ongoing operation.
The US Department of Justice and DEA would not answer questions about why they seized plants during a gas explosion investigation, and a public affairs representative with the US Attorney's office in New Mexico says they're prohibited from commenting during an ongoing investigation.
Lowry says he understands that federal agents are in an impossible position in this case, because federal law still considers all cannabis to be illegal.
"The DEA is in uncharted territory as it tries to reconcile federal policy with state-run programs," says Lowry. "Historically the DEA has always confiscated contraband, and under federal law all cannabis is contraband, medical or not."
A spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Health was out of his office Friday and did not respond to SFR's inquiry about the DEA's seizure of medicine from a state-licensed program.
In the meantime, SFR has also learned inspectors from the city's fire marshal office visited New MexiCann's facility after the producer filed a certificate of occupancy, but Fire Marshal Rey Gonzales Jr. says the gas extraction equipment was not in place during his team's original site visit.
Gonzales says businesses are required to request a new inspection if the use of a space changes. For now, Gonzales' staff is reviewing hazardous material regulations in the city's fire code to determine if New MexiCann violated any regulations.
Meanwhile, Lowry says that Len Goodman, the founder of New MexiCann, is engaged in open dialog with all law enforcement and government agencies and is waiting to get a green light after the investigations are concluded before reopening his Santa Fe location.
Other state-licensed producers tell SFR they're in discussions and plan to provide New MexiCann new plants so Goodman's patients have a consistent supply of medication and he's set back up in time to plant a new winter crop.
"The timing of this accident is bad. It hurts everybody," says Rachael Speegle, director of operations at Verdes Foundation, an Albuquerque-area dispensary.
Speegle, who is also a registered nurse with experience in public health policy, says the conflict between federal and state laws needs to be worked out.
"It's impossible to operate in this country when we still have this divide between the two regulatory bodies," she says.
Earlier this year, Speegle helped potential new growers apply for producer licenses. She says many of the new groups have been calling her with concerns about the DEA seizure.
"They want to know if they should invest money in this business because federal agents can seize plants at their whim," she adds.
R. Greenleaf Organics founder Willie Ford says everyone should be concerned about the seizure, but he claims he understands the DEA's action.
"It's in their DNA," says Ford. "These guys are just doing their jobs. They're required to investigate gas explosions, and when they see all the plants, they have to take them."