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Longtime Boston Cannabis Activist Faces Scrutiny By Police

More than three years after a successful statewide vote in Massachusetts to allow patients to have medical marijuana, federal and local law enforcement agencies are working together to wage a seemingly reinvigorated war on cannabis patients and providers.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), Massachusetts State Police, and police departments in Boston, Reading, Woburn, and North Reading are all depriving patients of access to lifesaving medicine that Commonwealth voters approved in 2012.

All this in addition to the DPH dragging its feet on the dispensary approval process - as a result of their stalling, there are still only four facilities up-and-running across the entire state - and to Massachusetts arbitrarily setting the allowed ratio of patients to independent caregivers who operate outside the dispensary system at 1:1, effectively diminishing the ability of caregivers to help people with hardships as intended under the initial law.

Bill Downing is a caregiver to medical marijuana patients

One case in point is that of caregiver Bill Downing, a longtime Boston-area activist with MassCann/NORML (and occasional contributor to and interview subject for this column), who is facing several misdemeanor complaints filed by Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley in Brighton Municipal Court related to Downing's testing the boundaries of Massachusetts medical marijuana laws.

Alleging that Downing acted outside of his legal rights as a caregiver, Conley also filed a complaint for forfeiture of Downing's products and for $126,708 that was seized in a raid.

Downing is a married 57-year-old father of two and has never been charged with a crime in the past. He says that he was helping seriously ill patients, and claims he was being transparent about his intentions.

I have known Downing for almost 20 years and believe this to be true. We have both heard from the same patients crying for medicine, a regular occurrence with those desperately seeking help for serious illnesses, and who need reliable sources of cannabis. Preferably provided by an expert who can help guide people toward relief.

Current system makes it hard for patients

I'm reminded of a patient named Ken Roberts who passed away in 2012 at the young age of 47. Bill and I knew him from the MassCann activist email list, where Ken wrote about his troubles finding medicine for his condition. We learned after his death that Ken needed large amounts of the medical grade indica he asked about - a commodity that's typically in short supply on the black market - for "constant painful torment [that] contributed to his demise," according to an obituary.

A few days before his magistrate hearing last week, Downing told me in a phone interview:

"I will suffer to help these people. How can any of us continue to say no, especially when the means to help are right here? It's immoral to deny these kids this CBD oil to control their seizures or to deny somebody like Ken Roberts his medical indica. That to me is immoral, criminal. Why did our government torture and deny him relief? I think the DPH and the state are the criminals on this … We passed an initiative three years ago already."

Downing's store, CBD Please in Allston, has been the focus of a BPD investigation since 2014. He was not charged at his magistrate hearing, perhaps indicating that arguments made by Downing's legal representatives resonated.

He noted in a follow-up phone call:

"The magistrate didn't seem to have any concern with my legal team bringing up the political nature of my persecution, but on the issue of whether I actually broke the law, it's unusual to say the least that with all the investigation, undercover buys, the warrant and raid of my business and home, that I was not charged at the hearing. There is the question [of whether] I actually broke a law with my CBD products. These products are not used for their THC content but for CBD benefits, for kids with seizures, not to get them high. My wholesaler states that these CBD products are legal in all 50 states. I do not believe I broke any laws."

The magistrate has agreed to read additional written arguments from Downing's attorneys, Steve Epstein and John Swomley, before ruling on charges. That process should take a few weeks; in the meantime, the court of public opinion should consider that a city with hundreds of unsolved murders is using detectives on a case that stands on such seemingly shaky legal ground - after a victory for medical cannabis at the ballot box in 2012.

It's important to acknowledge the entire timeline of this story too, starting with the investigation of Downing's previous venture, Yankee Care Givers. Reading police conducted undercover buys, leading to that business being shut down in June 2014.

At one point, Downing's service was clearly allowed under the 2012 medical marijuana initiative. But the guidelines got murkier after the DPH issued new regulations including a 1:1 caregiver-to-patient ratio, which meant that patients could grow cannabis themselves for their own medicinal use, or designate someone (a caregiver) to grow a supply for them. The caregiver can't supply to multiple patients. Downing contested those regs for months, and continued to have patients file the proper paperwork listing him as their provider.

It was well known that Downing had more than one patient

DPH processors were alerted, over and over again, that Downing had more than one patient. And authorities did nothing. Downing also filed, albeit unsuccessfully, for a court injunction against the state due to their arbitrary regulations.

The DPH finally addressed the contention by filing a cease-and-desist order to Yankee Care Givers, which led to Downing consulting his attorneys, and immediately closing his operation. He opened CBD Please in the aftermath.

None of this is mentioned in the complaint for forfeiture filed by the district attorney. Left out was how Downing shut down Yankee Care Givers voluntarily, and that Reading police have not filed charges against him despite conducting an investigation of their own in 2014.

The document implies that Yankee Care Givers and CBD Please are one in the same, with a DPH inspection manager stating that CBD Please and Yankee Caregivers are "acting in violation of the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Regulations."

Downing was selling products with little or no THC

Needless to say, there's no evidence presented to support such claims. Downing says it's especially bizarre since he was only selling CBD-high topical balms, ingestible CBD, and low or no-THC oils that exist in a gray area.

The complaint states that lab tests show some of the seized products contained no THC content at all, which makes you wonder if the state plans to raid the hemp oil aisle at Whole Foods next.

For all the THC counting, the police and alphabet soup agencies should acknowledge that patients aren't seeking CBDs to get stoned, and realize that Downing's prosecution could set a dangerous precedent.

Not to mention that the whole ordeal embarrasses the BPD and DA's office. They're just repeating history - mimicking former failed attempts to stop the Boston Freedom Rally, to revoke the business licenses of glass artisans, and the list goes on.

Then there's Downing. "You're the guy from that big Boston Hempfest," he recalls a DEA agent saying as storm troopers entered his home. Downing says machine guns were pointed at members of his family, and that he hasn't been sleeping well since the SWAT raid.

"We're not crazy to resist police," he says, "just don't point the guns and involve my family. That's political … there's no other reason for it."

Downing continues: "If the charges don't get filed, I will be moving to get my product and money back from the police and be back in business serving patients legal CBD products in Massachusetts."

For the patients he helps, that won't be soon enough.

Mike Crawford is a medical marijuana patient, the host of "The Young Jurks" on WEMF Radio, and the author of the weekly column The Tokin' Truth, which runs monthly in Civilized and weekly in Dig Boston. The column is produced in coordination with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He formerly wrote the column Blunt Truth under the name Mike Cann. Twitter: @mikecannboston


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