Medical marijuana advocate arrested in sting
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Maui Bureau
By Christie Wilson
PA'IA, Maui — The head of a medical marijuana advocacy group on Maui and six other men have been charged with running a drug trafficking ring.
The suspects were arrested Tuesday following a two-year investigation surrounding the Patients Without Time organization located on Baldwin Avenue in Pa'ia, said Capt. Gerald Matsunaga of the Maui Police Department.
As part of the investigation dubbed Operation Weedkiller, Maui police, assisted by other county, state and federal law enforcement agencies, recovered more than 335 plants, nearly 16 pounds of marijuana, a small amount of hashish and more than $14,000 in cash from several homes and businesses, he said.
"They exploited the medicinal marijuana laws to sell marijuana to turn a financial profit," Matsunaga said.
State Rep. Joe Bertram III, D-11th (Kihei, Wailea, Makena), yesterday defended Patients Without Time and its director, Brian Murphy, 53, who was indicted on 13 offenses, including criminal conspiracy and commercial promotion of marijuana. Bertram said the organization provides marijuana to the disabled and critically ill patients legally registered under the state's medical marijuana law.
"It's a godsend to sick people here on Maui. It's heartbreaking. A lot of people now are left in the lurch. They were getting a medicine that's safe and reliable and now it's gone," Bertram said.
"How are these people who have these permits supposed to have access to this medicine that the state said is available to them? This is major problem."
Bertram, who obtained a medical marijuana permit in 2005 after suffering a serious illness, said he is not officially connected to Patients Without Time but is familiar with the group. He said any money the organization accepted in payment for marijuana is used to subsidize patients who can't arrange for their own supplies.
He said Murphy is "very strict" about making sure marijuana is provided only to certified patients.
Murphy did not return calls yesterday seeking comment.
Matsunaga said Hawai'i's medical marijuana law does not allow the sale of marijuana, and that the drug ring used Patients Without Time and the state's medical marijuana laws group "to disguise their drug trafficking organization." The illegal enterprise even hired men to provide protection for the illicit operation, he said.
"Law enforcement officials predicted that these types of illegal activities would occur once medical marijuana laws were passed in Hawai'i," he said. "The investigation exposed how the drug trafficking organization abused the medical marijuana laws and philosophy to make a profit, and assisted people in becoming inebriated from marijuana and other byproducts of marijuana."
The arrests do not signal a change in the police department's enforcement policy regarding registered medical marijuana patients, Matsunaga said.
"There was nothing legal about the operation. You cannot sell marijuana," he said. "We don't go after people with legitimate medical marijuana permits if they are operating within the law. If they are breaking the law, then they should be worried about getting arrested."
Indicted along with Murphy were Brian Igersheim, 31, of Makawao, charged with 15 drug offenses; William "Bill" Cox, 48, of Ha'iku, charged with five counts; Stuart Hirotsu, 48, of Wailuku, seven charges; and Robert "Bobby" Armitage, 58, of Wailuku, Douglas Kaleikini Sr., 54, of Wailuku, and John Cooper, 40, of Kihei, who each were indicted on a single count of criminal conspiracy.
Nearly all had posted bail as of yesterday.
Matsunaga said police recovered a total of approximately 335 marijuana plants and cuttings, 5 pounds of processed marijuana, more than 10 pounds of unprocessed marijuana, a little more than an ounce of hashish, 100 marijuana-laced candies, a vehicle, $14,085 in cash, and drug paraphernalia associated with marijuana growing and distribution.
He declined to provide additional details of the alleged marijuana trafficking operation.
Assisting Maui Police Department's Criminal Intelligence and Special Response Team in Tuesday's arrests were the Hawai'i Narcotics Task Force, the statewide Marijuana Eradication Task Force Task Force, and the Hawai'i Inter-Agency Mobile Police Apprehension Crime Task Force.
Bertram said the arrests underscore "the gray areas" in Hawai'i's medical marijuana law and the difficulty patients have in legally accessing marijuana.
Under the law, a person must be certified by a physician to use marijuana for "debilitating" medical conditions. Patients may possess up to three mature marijuana plants, four immature plants and an ounce of usable marijuana for each mature plant.
The Department of Public Safety said 4,644 medical marijuana users were registered with the agency as of last month, including 866 on Maui.
The law allows the "acquisition, possession, cultivation, use, distribution or transportation" of marijuana by certified patients and their primary caregivers, but is not clear on what some of that means in practice.
Matsunaga said it does not allow the sale of marijuana under any circumstances. He also suggested the alleged drug trafficking ring was involved in something more sinister than simply providing seriously ill patients with therapeutic marijuana.
The Legislature this year approved a Bertram-sponsored bill that would have created a task force to examine issues related to the medical marijuana program, but Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed it.
Bertram said in 2009 he will push for further clarification of the law and decriminalization of minor marijuana offenses.
Reach Christie Wilson at email@example.com.