Medical pot clinic operator says government forced landlord to evict him

PRINEVILLE, Ore. (AP) The operator of a Prineville medical marijuana clinic is suggesting the federal government and local police intimidated his landlord into evicting him.

Ryan Cole opened the Crook County Compassion Clinic/Club last fall in a downtown building owned by the Veteran's Club, a collaborative effort of the local chapters of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. In late February, Cole was issued an eviction notice and given until the end of March to move out.

Dave Schwab, chairman of the Veteran's Club building committee, said the group was swayed by a letter sent by the U.S. Attorney for Oregon, S. Amanda Marshall.

In the letter, which was also sent to Prineville Police Chief Eric Bush, Marshall's office cautions that the sale of marijuana is illegal under Oregon and federal law. The letter also states that financiers or landlords of medical marijuana dispensaries can be subject to civil or criminal penalties, including forfeiture of their assets.

Schwab said he regarded the letter as "a bluff" or a "form letter," and indeed, much of the language in the letter is identical to a letter sent to Oregon medical marijuana dispensary operators in June 2011 when Dwight Holton occupied the position currently held by Marshall.

Schwab said he was unable to learn of any instance when federal authorities went after a landlord because of a tenant's involvement in the medical marijuana trade. But other club members were wary, particularly after Bush visited the club looking to talk to Schwab about the letter.

"It was just enough of a fear that, 'What if we were the first one?' and we decided we didn't want to take the chance of losing all our property," Schwab said. "He, himself, was a great tenant; we hated to do it."

Repeated calls to the U.S. Attorney's Office seeking clarification on the letter were not returned.

Cole said that in accordance with the state medical marijuana law, his business serves as a place for licensed growers and medical marijuana cardholders to connect and makes no money from marijuana transactions. Growers provide the dispensary with receipts showing the expenses they've incurred growing the marijuana, Cole said, and the price paid by cardholders is set to reflect the cost of equipment, materials or electricity needed to produce the crop rather than reimburse growers for their labor.

A small shop selling glass pipes and other smoking paraphernalia provides the dispensary with its only income, Cole said.

By Cole's estimates, his dispensary has served approximately 700 clients since it opened. According to statistics compiled by the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, as of Jan. 1, there were 296 medical marijuana cardholders living in Crook County, with another 2,981 in Deschutes and Jefferson counties.

Cole said that a day before he received his eviction notice, club members called him in for a meeting and told him they felt they were being harassed by Bush. During the meeting, club members did not bring up the letter, Cole said.

"They told me they were feeling intimidated and afraid they would be targeted, and that's why I'd be arrested," he said.

A number of club members did feel intimidated by seeing the chief of police walk into the club's bar, Schwab said, but he doesn't think Bush's visit rises to the level of harassment.

"I don't think one visit to the vet's club would be harassment," Schwab said. "There was a bit of intimidation going on there, but I wouldn't characterize it as harassment."

Bush said he contacted Schwab by phone after he was unable to locate him during his initial visit to the Veteran's Club, and then only to be sure the club had received its copy of the letter and understood what the U.S. Attorney's Office had to say. Bush said he's heard of nothing that would lead to his office taking action against Cole or his dispensary.

"So long as they're operating within the confines of the state law, I don't have any authority to enforce federal law," he said.

Cole said he has located another location in downtown Prineville to rent, and that his dispensary will remain open.


Information from: The Bulletin